Shultz's chance to put his stamp on Mideast policy
The United States is currently considering actions that are likely to disturb Israel but please Saudi Arabia.
At this point these are only tactical moves, having to do with possible restrictions on artillery shells going to Israel and possible American military exercises in support of Saudi Arabia near the Gulf.
But if US Secretary of State George P. Shultz decides to set a new direction for America's Mideast policy, the moves could become symbolic foundations for broader change.
Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the Reagan administration is willing to give key Arab nations the kind of political ''consolation prize'' - in terms of Palestinian recognition, for example - they seem to seek in return for facilitating the departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from Lebanon. Secretary Shultz says that the PLO must recognize Israel's right to exist and give up terrorist activities before the US will consider recognition of, and negotiations with, the PLO.
But Shultz takes office with a degree of flexibility available to him on such issues, for several reasons:
* During his confirmation hearings, Shultz defused potential criticism of his position on the Middle East by presenting his views in what most senators considered to be an admirably calm and balanced manner.
* The crisis in Lebanon has fostered such uncertainty, even among some of Israel's supporters in Congress, as to how the US should proceed from here that Shultz is being given a perhaps rare chance to strike out on his own.
* Although the bedrock of American public support for Israel's security remains strong, polls indicate a considerable degree of opposition among Americans to Israel's invasion of Lebanon. For example, a NBC News telephone survey conducted in mid-June indicated that by a 54 percent to 32 percent margin , Americans familiar with the fighting in Lebanon disapproved of the Israeli invasion.
* President Reagan's White House advisers had begun to question the way Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. handled the Lebanon crisis. Disagreement over this appeared to be one reason for Haig's resignation. But those same advisers realize that in terms of potential political damage at home, President Reagan can ill afford to lose yet another secretary of state.
All this gives Shultz a degree of room for maneuvering that has not always been available to American secretaries of state.
Still, as some commentators have noted, Mideast policy is often presidential policy. President Reagan has long been noted for his sympathy for Israel. And in any election year, such as this one, the views of the influential American Jewish community and its support for Israel can't be ignored.
In the meantime, the new secretary of state faces immediate decisions on two issues: artillery shells for Israel and consultations concerning the defense of the oil-producing nations of the Gulf.
On July 19, the US is supposed to decide whether to proceed with or suspend a shipment to Israel of artillery shells that carry cluster bombs - clusters of '''bomblets'' that spray hundreds of pieces of shrapnel. Israel has used the controversial cluster bombs in Lebanon against particularly difficult military targets, according to former Israeli military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv. But some US senators suspect that cluster bombs have caused civilian casualties in Lebanon. The legislators have been demanding a more thorough accounting of the bombs' use.
While the shipment in question is only one small part of the supply of American weapons to Israel, its suspension could generate new tensions with Israel.
In a classified document presented to Congress, the administration has already determined that Israel ''may have'' violated US laws by using American weapons in Lebanon for purposes other than self-defense.
Given a potential threat from Iran against Arab oil-producing nations friendly to the US, the Reagan administration is considering ways it can bolster the defense of key Gulf states, and Saudi Arabia in particular. Thought is being given to sending additional American naval units into the Arabian Sea and to engaging in joint maneuvers with nations in the region. The US must find a balance, however, between doing enough to increase Saudi confidence while not being so heavy-handed in its approach as to provoke Iran.
The first step will be a process of consultations, which might include the dispatch of US Defense Department teams to the region.