Israel will not trade allegations with Washington over who first suggested selling arms covertly to Iran, according to Israeli officials. Fresh revelations in Washington over the weekend suggest it was Israel that first persuaded President Reagan to sell arms to Iran, and then thought of using the profits to fund the United States-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels. Senior Israeli officials, responding to the charges, said Sunday that Israel will continue to deny that it was the originator of the scheme, but that it will not make counter-allegations.
``We have two options,'' said one senior Foreign Ministry official Sunday. ``Either we can point the finger back [at the Americans] or we can keep quiet. We are going to keep quiet.
``Basically, this is a friendly administration, and we don't want to do anything to add to its troubles.''
Both Israeli and American official sources said they do not believe that the dispute with the Reagan administration over who first conceived of the Iranian arms deal will significantly damage relations.
``This [Iran scandal] will be compartmentalized ... like other scandals,'' said one Western source. ``It will not be allowed to slop over into other aspects of the relationship. The relationship is just too complex and too important to both nations.'' Israel is the US's largest aid recipient. The two nations share intelligence information, enjoy close trade ties, and regard each other as allied Western-style democracies.
Fresh allegations were made in Washington Friday that Israel's role in conceiving the Iranian arms operation was much greater than Israel has said it was.
The White House released two secret documents the day after copies of the Senate Intelligence Committee's preliminary report on the Iran arms scandal were leaked to the press. One White House document was a Jan. 17, 1986, memo from then-national security adviser, Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, prepared by his aide, Lt. Col. Oliver North. The other was Mr. Reagan's approval of the arms shipments, also dated Jan. 17, 1986.
The Poindexter memo, which was sent to Reagan, begins by saying that ``Prime Minister [Shimon] Peres of Israel secretly dispatched his special adviser on terrorism with instructions to propose a plan by which Israel, with limited assistance from the US, can create conditions to help bring about a more moderate government in Iran.''
The memo is apparently is referring to a visit made by Lt. Col. Amiram Nir, then Mr. Peres's adviser on counterterrorism, to Washington in January 1986.
If so, the Poindexter memo would seem to indicate that Israel tried hard to persuade Reagan to restart arms shipments that were suspended in December 1985, after Shiite Muslim extremists in Lebanon failed to release all American hostages they were holding. The memo does not, however, suggest Israeli responsibility for earlier arms shipments to Iran, which began in September 1985.
Speaking separately to reporters on Saturday, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Peres, who is now foreign minister, both strongly denied that the idea of selling arms to Iran originated in Jerusalem.
Peres also denied that Israel had anything to do with skimming profits from the arms sales to fund the contras. Profits from the arms sales were deposited in Swiss bank accounts. Some White House officials said that those accounts were opened in the name of contra leaders by the Israelis, another allegation that Israel denies.
Peres repeated Israel's contention that it became involved in the Iran affair after ``we were approached as a friend [by the US]. We replied as a friend.''
David Kimche, former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with an Israeli newspaper that Israel joined in the covert operation only after then-National Security Council Adviser Robert McFarlane dispatched his aide to Israel with a request for Israel's help in freeing US hostages there.
From the earliest days of the Iran-contra arms scandal, Israel and the US have painted very different pictures of how the scheme began, and what the objectives were.
Reagan repeatedly has denied that he hoped to trade arms for hostages. The administration has said that the arms were intended as a goodwill gesture to Iranian moderates, and that it was acting in an effort to restore some level of relations with strategically important Iran.
Israeli officials have maintained that they simply wanted to help the Americans obtain the release of American hostages held in Beirut. The Poindexter memo would indicate, however, that it was Israel that was interested in the strategic benefits that could be gained from encouraging moderate members of the Iranian government.
``The Israelis are very concerned that Iran's deteriorating position in the war with Iraq, the potential for further radicalization in Iran, and the possibility of enhanced Soviet influence in the Gulf all pose significant threats to the seucrity of Israel,'' the Poindexter memo recounts. ``They believe it is essential that they act to at least preserve a balance of power in the region.''
The Israeli Cabinet, at its regular weekly meeting yesterday, reportedly discussed the latest revelations from Washington, but issued no statement. Cabinet Minister Amnon Rubinstein, of the left-of-center Shinnui party, said that he had called for an investigation of Israel's involvement in the scandal in light of the most recent reports.
The denials by Peres, Mr. Shamir, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin of the American allegations are ``not enough,'' Mr. Rubinstein told reporters Sunday.
``I'm absolutely sure that the position taken by the three ministers is the truth from their point of view,'' he said. ``But it is conceivable that they didn't get the right information.'' Rubinstein appeared to be referring to allegations made here last month that Colonel Nir might have made some suggestions to the US without the approval of Peres or Rabin.
Rubinstein said his proposal for an investigation will be studied by Shamir.
Observers said an investigation into Israel's role could only be conducted here if the government decides to do it. There is little public interest in the affair in Israel. The coalition government enjoys a comfortable majority in the Israel's parliament, and could easily defeat opposition moves to investigate the affair.
``Nobody gives a damn about the whole story here,'' observed another Foreign Ministry official. ``Israelis feel that whatever happened, happened.''