Israel and the Contras
excerpted from the book
The Iran Contra Connection
Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan
by Johnathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and
South End Press, 1987, paper
It is no accident that Israel, rather than, for example, South
Korea, which has also sold its share of arms to Iran, was caught
in the thick of things when the two-legged Irangate scheme was
exposed in November 1986. For Israel was almost certainly the
intellectual author of the plot to make Iran pay for the war against
Nicaragua and Israel had already been selling arms to the contras,
training them, and otherwise helping Reagan to circumvent Congressional
restrictions on the contra program. To find the roots of this
behavior we must return to Israel's earliest days.
Surrounded by Arab states whose hostility endured from the
rout of their armies and uprooting of the Palestinian population
as the Jewish state established itself, Israel has from its outset
sought international contact beyond its confinement in the Eastern
Mediterranean. Its Labor Zionist government propounded a doctrine
calling for the establishment of good relations with the peripheral,
non-Arab states of the region: Ethiopia, Turkey, and, of course
Looking farther afield, in the mid-1950s Prime Minister David
Ben Gurion attempted to involve Israel in what would later become
the Nonaligned Movement, but was at the time a loose gathering
of nations emerging from colonialism. Israel was barred from the
now-historic 1955 meeting at Bandung, Indonesia, because it was
seen as an outpost of European colonialism.
Israel next turned to Africa, where, after some vigorous behind
the scenes wooing of Ghana's founding leader Kwame Nkrumah,' Israel's
anticolonialist credentials (based on having fought the British
when they ruled Palestine) were accepted. As African nations were
granted independence, Israel commenced a program of development
assistance on the continent that was nothing short of spectacular,
given Israel's size, its resources and its own recent establishment.
In Africa, and in part of Asia as well, Israeli technicians
set up experimental farms, taught agricultural methods, established
medical programs and "workers banks," helped develop
infrastructure including roads, harbors and, for Ghana, a shipping
line, and undertook youth training, labor union leadership training,
and cooperative formation. Israel also established courses for
foreign students in many of these subjects so that by the end
of 1970 15,000 foreign students had been to Israel to study.
Development programs run by Israel were successful because
the Israelis technicians came from a small country rather than
recent colonial masters, and because the Israelis made it a practice
to work alongside their students.
However there was also a less savory side to these programs.
"For many years...the United States sent millions of dollars
in covert aid to Israel for operations in Africa that included
training several African intelligence services." During the
tenure of the Labor government (until 1977) European Social Democratic
regimes also supported Israeli development activities. Understandably,
Israel amassed an enormous intelligence capability in sub-Saharan
Africa. The big powers often consulted or coordinated with Israeli
operatives. Military training and arms sales were also a part
of Israel's outreach to Africa, along with its humanitarian gestures.
As a result of all this, by 1968 32 African nations had established
diplomatic relations with Israel.
In the mid-1960s Israel expanded the programs which had been
so successful in Africa (and in parts of Asia as well) to Latin
America, a region which needed little courting as its already
established governments had provided an important bloc of supporting
UN votes in 1947 when that body was considering the partition
of Palestine into Palestinian and Jewish states.
After Israel's 1973 war the Organization of African Unity
called for a diplomatic embargo of Israel, and all but three African
governments- Malawi, Swaziland and Lesotho, all within the tight
embrace of South Africa-either already had or shortly thereafter
severed diplomatic relations. Israel was then left with little
choice but to focus on the Asian nations with which it had relations
and on Latin America.
Following the 1973 war, which in turn had followed the 1967
war during which Israel had occupied territory belonging to Jordan,
Syria and Egypt, the perception of Israel as an underdog beset
by rapacious neighbors was wearing out. In much of the world Israel
was criticized for its occupation of Arab territory, its oppression
of Palestinians in that territory, its intransigence in the face
of all opportunities for peace, and, increasingly, its close links
with South Africa. Also around this time, Israel's focus was shifting
from development to military power. By 1980 Israel would be railing
at the "petro-power" of the Arab governments of the
Gulf-which, it claimed had turned Africa against it, with promises
of funding for major infrastructural projects-and selling $1 billion
worth of arms to a curious assortment of customers, including
some of its former African friends. While clinging to as much
as it could of the old patina of the days when it was a "light
unto the nations," Israel had redefined itself into an arms
The Dictates of Israel's Arms Industry
Well before there was a state, there was an arms industry,
producing small arms which the Jewish settlers in Palestine used
against the Arab inhabitants they found there."
In the late 1930s and early 1940s arms acquisition by unconventional
means, including smuggling war surplus from the U.S., became a
preoccupation of Zionist leaders. After the United Nations approved
the partition plan establishing a Jewish national homeland in
Mandatory Palestine, great energy was expended securing weapons
from a mostly unwilling world for the fight that was expected,
following the withdrawal of the British colonialists.
The difficulty experienced in obtaining weaponry, when combined
with the legacy of the recently abated Holocaust, seems to have
produced a certain mindset in the leaders of the new state of
Israel. To call it determined would be to understate it.
The Holocaust reconfirms the perspective that there are those
who seek the destruction of the Jews and that Jewish survival
should not depend on the guarantees or efforts of others. Thus,
Israel sees that it must rely on its own defense capacity to ensure
its survival and protect its people.
Emblematic of this grim determination was the decision in
1952 to commit the fledgling nation to the expensive and politically
risky development of nuclear weapons.
A similarly far-reaching commitment to establish an arms industry
was made in 1967, when France, at the time Israel's major source
of weapons (and nuclear technology), canceled contracts for major
weapons systems. French President de Gaulle was angered by Israel's
decision to go to war. Always resistant to political pressure,
Israeli leaders determined to become self-sufficient in arms.
The investment was a political one, without a thought to economies
of scale-which would have shown it to be foolish. Actually Israel
had had the beginnings of a parastatal military industry from
1948, built up around the secret munitions workshops of the pre-state
period. i7 In the late 1960s and through the 1970s new companies
were founded and major weapons systems produced. Much of the technology
for the weapons Israel manufactured came from abroad, first from
France, then from the United States. Investment also was needed
from abroad, most notably from U.S. firms establishing joint ventures
or subsidiaries and from the government of South Africa which
agreed in 1976 to subsidize research and development on major
Israeli weapons systems.
Israel's army is ranked among the best in the world, and it
is very large in proportion to the country's tiny population,
but no major arms-producing state manufactures weapons solely
for its own military. In order to lower the unit cost of weapons,
they produce more than they need and try to export the difference.
In Israel's case the problem was compounded because Israel's possible
markets were severely limited. NATO countries for the most part
produce for themselves and each other, and likewise for members
of the Warsaw Pact. With some notable exceptions (Ethiopia, Indonesia,
and recently the Peoples Republic of China) the socialist and
Islamic countries shun Israel. Since the 1973 break, most African
nations have also kept their contacts with Israel to a minimum.
What remained were the ASEAN nations, the pro-Western Asian grouping,
Latin America, and the pariah, or untouchable, nations such as
South Africa, Taiwan, Chile, and Guatemala. Latin America, where
many countries fall into none of these categories and most of
the rest fall into the pariah category, became Israel's premier
market, although recently Israel has picked up some sales in Europe.
The typical Israeli customer, wrote one leading analyst of
Israeli arms exports,
...is most likely to be a non-western country with a defense
conscious government, rightist in orientation, in which the military
is either the actual or proximate locus of power. It is confronted
by a security threat originating either domestically or from a
neighboring country.... [L]ike Israel, it, too, is isolated diplomatically
and under international criticism, and therefore encounters problems
in meeting military requirements from other sources of supply.
Israel never managed to produce even half of its own military
gear. But it did become hooked on arms exports, which represented
31 percent of industrial exports in 1975,23 and are now thought
to comprise 30 to 40 percent of Israel's industrial output.. Twenty
percent of the industrial labor force works in arms production.
By aggressively marketing its products where it could, by 1980
Israel had managed to boost its exports to over the $1 billion
mark. With the possible exception of 1983, they have remained
at that level, and are now above $l.25 billion. Moreover, since
these numbers are estimates based on observations and accounts
of transactions in the international media-the Israeli government
releases no information on its arms sales-if anything, they are
Yet these sales were never enough, especially after 1985,
when Israel's defense budget began to suffer regular cuts and
orders from the military dropped as part of an anti-inflationary
program. The military industries were faced with the necessity
of increasing exports to save jobs.
The export statistics do not begin to describe the power wielded
by the arms producers, much less the "pro-arms lobby,"
a wider group including top ranks of the Israeli military, directors
of various industries, unions whose members depend on incoming
weapons orders for their livelihood, and several Israeli leaders
with close ties to arms industries including Shimon Peres, who
as a protege of Ben-Gurion at the defense ministry, is credited
with being the architect of Israel's arms producing sector, and
Moshe Arens, a former president of Israeli Aircraft Industries.
Some critics even charge that the defense ministry, at the
apex of the arms producing sector, has taken over Israeli foreign
policy. That policy is directed, they say, for short term objectives
which often foreclose the possibility of longer term diplomatic
aims which might bring Israel out of its isolation. Under the
sway of this system, Israel's overall "conduct of external
affairs...tends to be unsystematic, with a strong emphasis upon
short-term contingency planning and crisis management." "Because
of the feeling which has taken root that weapons must be sold
at almost any price, countries described as 'dirty' are attracted
to us as to a magnet," lamented the military columnist for
Israel's leading daily. "The irony is that many of these
countries are even ashamed to publicize the fact that they purchase
weapons from Israel, as though we were lepers."
Compounding this situation is the process by which sales are
approved. It is conducted in secrecy by four men-the prime minister,
the defense minister, the foreign minister, and the minister of
trade and industry-who convene as the Ministerial Committee on
Weapons Transfers. As with Israel s part in Irangate, other cabinet
ministers are kept in the dark and, similarly, the Knesset, Israel's
parliament has neither the authority nor the will to veto arms
None of this has been without its effect on Israel's mainstay,
the United States, which has played a crucial role in Israeli
arms marketing in several respects. Much of what Israel has to
sell contains U.S. technology and thus needs Washington's permission
before it can be exported, or, as was the case with some of the
sales to Iran, came to Israel through its U.S. military assistance
grants. As the Jerusalem Post reported in March of 1985, its economy
m serious enough trouble to warrant a supplementary U.S. aid package
of $1.5 billion, Israel targeted the United States as an untapped
market for its weapons exports.
An interesting intersection with the U.S., and one with much
bearing on Israel's relationship with the contras, is the search
for markets. Israel has asked the U.S. to set aside certain markets
for exclusive Israeli exploitation. It has requested help in marketing,
and it has requested U.S. financing for its weapons sales to impoverished
governments. It has also asked that recipients of U.S. military
aid be allowed to purchase Israeli weapons, an unprecedented break
with the traditional "buy American" practice, considered
to be the underpinning of U.S. military assistance.
None of these elements were operative when Israel first began
marketing its military wares in Central America in 1973. Israel
simply pushed into the market itself, introducing its new products
at fairs and with a shipboard showroom. Aided by contacts developed
during the previous decade when it had conducted technical assistance
programs in the region, Israel sold lts castoff French combat
jet aircraft to El Salvador and in 1975 to Honduras-these were
the region's first jet fighters and first supersonic jets, respectively,
and the buyers had not yet made peace following a shooting war
in 1969-and a variety of armored vehicles, patrol boats, counterinsurgency
aircraft and small arms to these two nations and to Nicaragua
and Guatemala. Before very long, however, Israeli sales would
increase and that increase would be thanks to events in the U.S.,
which created sales opportunities for Israel.
Opportunity in Central America
The same Carter human rights doctrine that brought campaign
contributions from wealthy Guatemalans to Ronald Reagan brought
orders to the Israeli arms industries. By 1978 Nicaragua, El Salvador
and Guatemala were found guilty of human rights violations connected
with insurgencies arising from longstanding social and political
inequities. U.S. military aid was terminated and all three of
these nations then turned to Israel to fill the gaps left by withdrawal
of U.S. aid.
As part of this windfall Israel supplied the military regime
of El Salvador with over 80% of its weaponry for the next several
years, including napalm for use against the Salvadoran civilian
population. Israeli advisers trained the Salvadorans in counterinsurgency
and installed a computerized intelligence system able to track
insurgents and, by monitoring Utility usage, pinpoint safe houses.
It is almost certain that these advisers remained after 1981
when Washington made the cause of the Salvadoran landowning oligarchy
its own and resumed military aid. The Israelis thus helped the
U.S. exceed the congressional limitation of U.S. advisers in El
Salvador at any one time. According to a member of El Salvador's
short-lived First Junta (1979-80), Israeli advisers who came to
train officers of ANSESAL, the Salvadoran secret police originally
established by the CIA and closely linked to the infamous death
squads, remained in El Salvador as late as 1983.
Although increasing U.S. military assistance cut into the
amount of business available to Israel, Israel continued its relationship
with the Salvadoran military, most recently providing a sophisticated
"pacification" plan which involves the forcible resettlement
of civilians into communities under military control. Following
the failure of confidently announced U.S. plans to "win the
hearts and minds" of the long suffering Salvadoran populace,
the Israeli program (funded by the World Bank, the U.S. and West
Germany) is a quid pro quo for El Salvador's decision to move
its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
If Salvadoran "model villages" follow the pattern
of those Israel has helped establish in Guatemala, their "citizens"
will soon be growing fancy vegetables for export in exchange for
barely enough food for their families, turning a profit for their
military "guardians." The agricultural operations under
Israeli advisement are likely to order Israeli high tech farming
equipment and Israelis have invested heavily in Guatemala's agricultural
sector. Already some Salvadoran officers are trying to imitate
Guatemala's involuntary "self defense" forces, an integral
part of its "pacification" program.
Since 1977 the Guatemalan military has relied heavily on Israel
for each phase of its anti-insurgency campaign. Israeli advisers
appeared on the scene when the military government was engaged
in killing and dispossessing the largely Mayan highland communities
in an effort to squash the Indians' support for a revolutionary
movement inspired by the incredible inequality of land ownership.
Over the following eight years, Israeli weapons and advisers helped
the Guatemalan military halt the growth of the insurgency-by a
mass carnage of at least 10,000 which some observers have not
hesitated to call genocide.
Israel, according to Benedicto Lucas Garcia, brother of head
of state (1978-1982) Romeo Lucas Garcia, and former chief of staff
of the Guatemalan Army, "did not provide us with large amounts,
but it was the only [state] which provided us with military support
so that we could deal with the guerrillas." The arms might
not have been numerous enough to please Lucas, but in 1983 a Time
reporter marveled that "the Israelis have sold the government
everything from anti-terrorism equipment to transport planes.
Army outposts in the jungle have become near replicas of Israeli
army field camps."
Moreover, Israel also provided Guatemala with two computer
centers, one of which, located in an annex to the Presidential
Palace, was used to monitor dissidents and compile and disseminate
death lists. Israel has also been instrumental in providing advice
and direction for Guatemala's audacious program of long term social
control: four "poles of development" with dozens of
"model villages" in which are interned indigenous peasants
driven off their land or captured by the army. Wrested from their
corn-oriented culture and under direct military control, the peasants
grow export crops. This social experiment-the Guatemalan officer
who directs the program compared the model villages to Israeli
kibbutzim-has enjoyed support from the U.S. religious right. South
Africa is also known to be assisting with the "resettlement"
Nicaragua escaped the same fate, but not for want of Israel's
attention. In the late 1970s, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle,
last of a dynasty that had run Nicaragua as a family fiefdom since
1933, was faced by an insurrection of virtually the entire population,
and in 1978, at the latter stages of events, the Carter Administration
finally cut off U.S. assistance. Somoza was then faced with a
fairly rigorous informal embargo; no country seemed willing to
sell him weapons.
The Israelis were quick to take up the slack, and from September
of that year until the following July when he was ousted, Israel
sold Somoza 98 percent of the weapons he used against the Nicaraguan
population. Those included not only Uzi submachine guns and "thousands"
of Israeli-made Galil assault rifles, but large quantities of
ammunition, surface-to-air missiles (the FSLN, the Sandinistas,
had no air force), nine combat-armed Cessna aircraft and two Sikorsky
helicopters, which Somoza's Guard used as platforms for machine
gun strafing. Sometimes they rolled 500 pound bombs out the helicopter
With the tacit permission of the Carter Administration, the
Israelis continued to ship arms to Somoza until the end of June
1979. Three weeks before the dictator was forced to flee, Washington
said "enough," and Israel recalled supplies (including
two patrol boats) that were then on their way to Nicaragua. From
exile, Somoza fretted about the ship that was recalled to Israel:
"Somewhere in Israel there is a large consignment of arms
and ammunition which could have saved Nicaragua." Someday,
his men would reclaim that cargo, but killed in Paraguay in 1981,
Somoza would not live to see that, nor would he see how hard Ronald
Reagan would work to restore Nicaragua to his National Guard.
In response to criticism occasionally leveled at it in subsequent
years, Israel has always insisted that it stood by Somoza because
of a debt dating back to the 1930s. At that time, and again following
World War II, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the father of the toppled
dictator, vouched for weapons purchased in Europe by the pre-state
Zionist military forces, the Haganah. The Zionists who dealt with
him paid Somoza extremely well at the time, so it is somewhat
ludicrous for the Israelis to argue that they were honor bound
to help his son murder thousands of Nicaraguans decades later.
However, they have gotten by with this line of defense, since
no one with any leverage over Israel has challenged it, and the
arms sales were very lucrative, probably amounting to $250 million.
Israel, the White House Junta and the Contras
The lack of criticism from where it mattered-the U.S. Congress
and influential liberal and progressive constituencies in the
U.S.-to any of its arms dealings in Central America emboldened
Israel to cooperate with the Reagan Administration in supporting
the contras in the early days of the program. But there came a
time, as early as the summer of 1983, when the administration
wanted more from Israel than Israel was willing to risk. The tension
that arose then persisted and almost certainly set the course
for the scheme which would become known as Iran-Contra affair.
Whatever else the story demonstrates, it shows clearly that
Israel might cooperate extensively with the administration or
its covert agents in many parts of the world, but it is far from
the supine proxy that such a role suggests. The dickering back
and forth which went on over what Israel could do for the contras
was never completely resolved: when the federal furniture is rearranged
following the investigations of the affair, there will be even
greater pressure on Israel to stand up in public with the contras.
But much money and many weapons changed hands while the relationship
grew up around that point of contention. The participants' divergent
wishes about Israel's role with the contras resulted in the linking
of two operations, which were eventually exposed as the Iran-Contra
Until the U.S.-approved Iran arms sales began, U.S.-Israeli
collaboration in the war against Nicaragua appears to have been
carried out in the framework of a series of agreements. Israel's
Likud government, which took office in 1977, had always pursued
concessions from the U.S. to help it develop and market weapons.
Some elements of what Israel desired were incorporated in a Memorandum
of Agreement signed by the two countries in March 1979. Four months
after the Reagan Administration was sworn in, Secretary of State
Alexander Haig signed a commitment extending the privileges of
the 1979 pact.
On November 30,1981 the administration signed a Memorandum
of Understanding (MOU) on Strategic Cooperation with Israel. In
addition to provisions aimed at boosting Israel's weapons industry,
the MOU bound the two countries into a loose mutual defense pact
(aimed, as quickly became de rigeuer in the Reagan years, at the
USSR) and covered cooperation in Africa and very likely other
areas of the developing world. Although this agreement was suspended
almost immediately when Israel angered Washington with its surprise
annexation of the Golan Heights, "its spirit and some of
its initiatives continue under the 1979 MOA." (Defense Minister
Ariel Sharon said the suspension of the MOU did not hurt Israel
as the U.S. would pay interest for the delay in its implementation.)
The cooperation was unspecified in the MOU, but an Israeli
official said it was left to be evolved. The Israelis wanted-and
until David Kimche took his leave from the Foreign Ministry shortly
before the Iran-contra scandal broke, continued to want-U.S. funding
to entice African nations to reestablish diplomatic relations
with them. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon said that Washington
had promised Israel money for its activities in Africa. (Sharon
arrived in Washington to sign the MOU for Israel immediately after
having traveled through Africa. He urged the Reagan Administration
to sell arms to South Africa so it too could help in the fight
Israel was also eager for the formal pact because it believed
that the connection would boost public perception of Israel as
a "strategic asset" of the United States, rather than
Washington's biggest foreign aid client- although the goal of
the perception engineering was in part to obtain more U.S. aid.
Judging from the way the Israelis would keep seeking it, Washington
never put a great deal of money into Israel's Africa operations.
And whatever spirit of the 1979 Memorandum survived Israel's 1982
invasion of Lebanon and, in the aftermath, Prime Minister Begin's
arrogant rejection of the timid peace plan proffered by President
Reagan, was quite withered.
Moreover, with the resignation of Secretary of State Haig
and his replacement by George Shultz, a longtime employee of the
giant Bechtel construction firm with close business ties to Arab
governments, Israel and its U.S. backers expected relations to
get worse. Instead, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci-he
has since been appointed national security adviser-persuaded Shultz
to work with Robert C. Ames, the CIA senior officer for the Middle
East. Moshe Arens, Israel's ambassador at the time and his aide
Benjamin Netanyahu (since Israel's ambassador to the UN) made
the reeducation of Shultz their personal project, building a personal
relationship with the Secretary of State. The "real turning
point" came at the end of 1982, when Shultz tried to block
a S200 million addition to Israel's U.S. assistance, proposed
by Congress at the behest of AIPAC (the American Israel Public
Affairs Committee, Israel's registered lobby in the U.S.). He
lost and acknowledged the lobby's power-and Israel has regarded
him as a firm friend ever since.
That summer four Shultz assistants began to press the secretary
to establish closer links with Israel. One of the four was Undersecretary
of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who would later be assigned to
act as U.S. Iiaison on bilateral covert activities. When the group
had completed their position papers arguing for "strategic
cooperation" with Israel, Shultz and Robert McFarlane, at
the time national security adviser, went to see the President
and sold him the new policy, over the opposition of CIA Director
Casey and Secretary of Defense Weinberger. They argued that it
would help contain Soviet expansion in the Middle East.
The political correspondent for Israel's military radio credited
Robert McFarlane with the breakthrough. "It is stressed in
Jerusalem that even before the massacre [the October bombing of
marine headquarters] in Beirut, a tendency had emerged in Washington
toward increasing cooperation with Israel in the wake of deliberations
in the U.S. capital after Robert McFarlane became the new national
In late October 1983 President Reagan signed National Security
Decision Directive 111, establishing strategic cooperation with
Israel. Israel's Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir arrived in Washington
the following month to discuss the pact-he described it as, in
part, "a dialogue on coordinating activity in the third world"-and
it was formally signed the following March.
Largely unknown in this country, in Israel the new pact was
leaked before it was even signed, much less discussed, after a
visit to Israel by Under Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.
The conservative Israeli paper Ma'ariv, said that early in November
Eagleburger told Prime Minister Shamir that "the president
would like to meet with a personality or personalities from the
most senior echelons in Israel."
Ma'ariv pointed out that what the White House wanted was "substantive,
and not just intended to shut Israel up and justify the AWACS
deal with Saudi Arabia," and that it finally recognized Israel
"as a real asset." The paper speculated that Eagleburger,
Secretary of State Shultz, "and the members of the National
Security Council advocating a pro-Israeli line are currently enjoying
Reagan's support," over those aligned with Defense Secretary
Ma'ariv said that the Reagan Administration admitted that
it had dealt harshly with Israel over Lebanon and, "during
the invasion of Grenada, when the United States used all the explanations
Israel used to explain its invasion of Lebanon within the framework
of the Peace for Galilee Operation, which the United States did
not find satisfactory."
Shamir left Washington with promises of increased U.S. aid,
short term economic credits, concessions on the sales of Israeli
weapons systems to the U.S., and an administration commitment
to a Free Trade Agreement. Shortly thereafter, the Defense Department
relented in an ongoing standoff and released technology packages
for the Lavi aircraft Israel was developing. To the media, Secretary
of State Shultz acknowledged that there was "no quid pro
quo in the new arrangement with Israel, that the United States
received no major concessions in return." Clearly the administration
was propitiating Israel and there was only one conceivable reason
it could have been doing so: it wanted Israeli help with the contras.
Well before the U.S. invasion of Grenada, and while the State
Department was still fashioning its new pro-Israeli policy, a
bilateral committee spearheaded by Robert McFarlane began what
would become twice-yearly meetings. In 1982, as an aide to Secretary
of State Alexander Haig, McFarlane had been sent to Israel to
discuss Haig's vision of a conservative Middle East alliance.
McFarlane's interlocutor had been David Kimche, director-general
of the Israeli foreign ministry. When McFarlane moved over to
the White House he established links between Kimche and senior
State Department officials, launching what came to be known as
the U.S.-Israel Political Military Committee. The committee 'which
would meet every spring and fall (alternately in Washington and
Jerusalem)' was set up "to look at the big picture,"
meaning everything but what is euphemistically known as the Middle
East "peace process." It would later be subsumed under
the 1984 strategic agreement.
At the first meeting of the group, in June 1983, discussion
was mainly on cooperation in the developing world, centered especially
on Central America-on "the intention of the U.S. Administration
to get Israel to supply the armies of the pro-American regimes
there," with funds "the U.S. cannot directly transfer
to its allies in the region...paid to Israel directly from the
During the same time frame the White House was starting to
appreciate Israel for what it could do to promote administration
aims in Central America and Israel's willingness to "assist"
the U.S., administration officials had said, helped to improve
strained relations between the two countries. An Israeli account
said that such cooperation was the only "aspect of cooperation...to
be energetically pursued during the last two years."
Israel had allowed S2 I million to be reprogrammed from its
foreign assistance to El Salvador in 1981, before Congress had
had an opportunity to cave in to the new Reagan Administration's
demands for major military aid for the Salvadoran regime. Israel
already had the Guatemalan situation well in hand, and it had
reinforced the words of UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to debt-ridden
Costa Rica: if you want aid you must create an army.' And it was
involved in a low-key way with the contras.
An Evolving Modus Operandi
In early 1985 both Reagan Administration officials and members
of Congress said that Israel had again stepped up aid to the contras,
but denied that U.S. foreign aid was funneled through Tel Aviv,
El Salvador or Honduras. The denial came as the Reagan Administration
began signaling its desire to find a legal way to send aid through
third countries. In March 1985 it said it was considering asking
"friendly" Asian countries to support the contras. Taiwan
and Thailand were mentioned, and it was never made clear whether-U.S.
aid or the friendly countries' own resources would be used. An
administration official said both U.S. aid recipients and non-recipients
were under consideration.
Ominously, an administration official said "Right now
there is a proscription from any third country providing assistance.
Well, might the Congress not wish to reconsider that ?"
After a few such feelers on this score produced negative reactions
from Congress, the pronouncements ceased. The White House announced
that it had "rejected a series of proposals for indirect
financing of the Nicaraguan rebels." But the conniving continued.
In July 1985 the Reagan Administration not only got S27 million
"non-lethal" aid out of Congress for the contras, it
also figured out a way to "legalize" shaking down U.S.
aid recipients for contributions to the mercenaries. (Incidental
but not unrelated to this process, the $12.6 billion foreign aid
bill containing contra aid-the first foreign aid bill since 1981
to stand on its own rather than skulk in a continuing resolution-won
the votes of a number of liberals because it also contained S4.6
billion in U.S. aid for Israel. Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) called
it "critical assistance. " ~ 77 The House leadership
either did not try to separate the contra aid from the aid to
Israel or was unable to do so.)
The president signed the foreign aid bill containing the S2
7 million on August 8.'79 Before he signed it, however, while
the bill was in a House-Senate conference the White House ordered
surgery on one of its amendments. Named for Senator Claiborne
Pell (D-RI), the offending language forbid the Reagan Administration
from making a formal or informal arrangement with U.S. aid recipients
to aid the contras. Unless the Pell Amendment was removed, it
was threatened that the president would veto the entire bill.
The State Department explained that the amendment might prevent
the president from soliciting "nonlethal" aid from Israel,
Taiwan, South Korea, and other such allies, some of which had
already spoken to the White House about donations.
In a highly unusual move, Sen. Pell, Foreign Relations Chairman
Richard Lugar (R-IN) and White House and congressional staff sat
down together and rewrote the amendment. The new language read:
...the U.S. shall not enter into any arrangement conditioning
expressly or impliedly the provision of assistance under this
act...upon provision of assistance by a recipient to persons or
groups engaging in an insurgency...against the government of
Both houses of Congress passed this language before they adjourned
for the summer. Henceforth the administration was allowed to put
the arm on aid clients-just not to the point of threatening to
cut off their aid!
The following week it became evident that the heat was off
Israel, as contra boss Adolfo Calero catalogued contributions
for reporters: "A lot of people help on weapons. Gen. Singlaub,
some Germans, some French. The people who help us are not government
people, but governments can give leaves of absence or it can be
a retired person. We have no Israeli dealings. They have not given
or sold us anything." Earlier that year a reporter for National
Public Radio had seen Israeli-made artillery pieces at the FDN's
main camp in southern Honduras.
Although information is now coming to light about arms shipments
made by the Secord-Hakim-North junta through Portugal and France,
there have been very few reports of weapons coming from Europeans
for the contras. As to financial contributions that might have
been used to purchase weapons, Edgar Chamorro insists that the
occasional reports of such money from Europe are a "smokescreen."
"Money only goes through Europe to be laundered," he
In 1986, in a scenario at least as ironic as the forcing of
Iran to finance the war against Nicaragua, Richard Secord shook
down the government of Saudi Arabia for funds for the contras.
The Saudis gave in after being reminded that the administration
had stuck its neck out and "defied the powerful pro-lsraeli
lobby" to get the AWACs sale through Congress. Secord himself
had lobbied for the sale. Secord then used the Saudi money "to
acquire Soviet-made weapons from Egypt, from Israeli-held stocks
captured in Lebanon, and from international arms dealers."
During the years Congress limited funding for the contras,
CIA Director Casey and UN Ambassador Vernon Walters traveled to
a number of U.S. clients and urged contributions. Both Israel
and Egypt donated money in response to these pleas "when
reminded of the substantial U.S. aid they receive."
It was not all giving though. While some of the money that
Israel volunteered is said to have been passed through Oliver
North, it is more than likely that the money Israel gave was immediately
recycled in Israel for weapons, a pattern that was to be repeated
when the siphoning off of the Iran profits commenced. (The same
pattern which ensures that much of U.S. foreign aid is spent on
U.S. weapons or civilian imports.) Former contra leader Edgar
Chamorro has pointed out that arms dealers do not seek out the
contras, nor do the mercenaries often make purchases on the open
market. He explained that "a very few people, close to the
White House, tell the FDN how to get weapons...Calero is told
by the people in charge where to go to buy weapons. They even
make the connections."
Massive Israeli Arms Shipments
... An arms expert estimated that the Israelis had sent the
contras "thousands" of AK-47s. Seventy AK-47s and 100,000
rounds of AK-47 ammunition were among other items on the plane
shot down by Nicaragua on October 5, 1986.
During the 1985-86 period Israel sent at least 6 shiploads
of East bloc assault rifles, grenade launchers and ammunition
to Honduras for the contras. Some of the 400 tons of weapons shipped
by Southern Air Transport to Ilopango Air Base in El Salvador
came from Israel, via Portugal. One shipment, a "significant
quantity" of East bloc arms (interestingly, the only Israeli
arms shipment to the contras to be mentioned in the Senate Intelligence
Committee's report) was offered by Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak
Rabin on September 12, 1986. They were to be picked up during
the following week and taken on a foreign-flag vessel to Central
America. Admiral Poindexter had corresponded with Oliver North
about the Israeli shipment and wrote North a note characterizing
the deal as a "private deal between Dick [Secord] and Rabin
that we bless," and telling North to "go ahead and make
An Israeli source confirmed that the shipload of weapons had
indeed been on the way to Central America. He said that it had
been recalled after the scandal broke.
In a briefing he prepared for President Reagan in advance
of a scheduled September 15 meeting with Prime Minister Shimon
Peres, Poindexter advised Reagan to thank Peres for the shipment
"because the Israelis held considerable stores of bloc ordnance
compatible with arms used by the [contras]." Such shipments
might have been a regular feature of the "strategic"
relationship between the U.S. and Israel, or that blessed deal
might have been a unique occasion. Many, if not most of the Israeli
shipments went through private Israeli dealers, who exist for
just such business.
The Attractions of Obscurity
Over the many hearings, investigations, and other dissections
of Iran-contra affair, Israel's purposes are likely to remain
obscure to the public. Israeli citizens, be they officials, arms
dealers, or civilian witnesses are not bound by U.S. Iaw to testify
or cooperate in investigations. Israel has already made it clear
that it will shield its citizens who were involved in the affair
behind its national sovereignty and will only cooperate to the
extent necessary to placate public opinion.
And that, given the well-oiled media machinery of Israeli
loyalists in the U.S., is a very limited proposition. As was seen
during the invasion of Lebanon, when the cameras focus in too
close a vast cry will go up, charging media imbalance and probably
The Congress, which had many opportunities to examine Israel's
activities in Central America and to discourage them, understands
the problems attached to those activities all too well but members
of Congress would be the first to admit (if only they dared) that
they are powerless to restrain Israel. Organizations dedicated
to reversing the post war trends in U.S. foreign policy are also
unlikely to depart from their ingrained tendency to avoid confrontation
Israel's immunity to U.S. Iaw and the silence it has created
around itself by years of methodical intimidation will protect
it through the bloodletting ahead. These built-in attractions
are also likely to make Israel the vehicle of choice for the next
tragic and avoidable essay in covert foreign policy.
Iran Contra Connection