ONE of the more interesting aspects of the affair of US arms to Iran and to the contras is the role Israel has played in the affair. The precise nature of the role is in dispute. The White House position, disclosed officially in the texts made public by the White House on Jan. 9, presents Israel as being the initiator as well as the middleman.
This initiating role is denied by Israel's former prime minister and current foreign minister, Shimon Peres. Simcha Dinitz, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and now a member of the Israeli Knesset, wrote an article published in the Jan. 8 issue of the New York Times in which he defends the propriety of Israel's responding favorably ``in the one case in which the United States asks Israel to help save American lives.''
Thus, in the Israeli version, Israel was being helpful to the US in response to an American initiative.
But the memorandum that Adm. John M. Poindexter, then national-security adviser to President Reagan, prepared for the President and presented to the President orally on Jan. 17, a year ago, opens with the following paragraph:
``Prime Minister 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.''
Other White House briefers and testimony presented by present and former White House staff members all agree in placing on Israel the idea of offering US weapons to Iran through Israel.
But there is no argument over the role of Israel as the middleman. Whether the idea originated in Washington or in Israel, all agree that US weapons were delivered through Israeli mediation to Iran.
There is in addition the assertion by US Attorney General Edwin Meese that some of the funds paid by Iran for the weapons were subsequently used for the benefit of the contra guerrillas fighting against the government of Nicaragua. Information so far available indicates that the profits from the sale of US weapons to Iran went into a secret Swiss bank account from which such funds presumably were converted, at least in part, to guns for the contras (although some contras have said that they never received such funds).
There remains unquestioned an Israeli role in the affair.
There is nothing surprising about this Israeli role. Israel was a supplier of weapons to Iran in the days of the Shah. Presumably there was a hiatus in the flow of such weapons after the downfall of the Shah, but it was not long before reports came in of secret flights, usually by night, from Israel to Iran carrying spare parts for US weapons which the Khomeini regime inherited from the Shah.
The US on several occasions asserted that it asked Israel to cease such deliveries to Iran. There have been assertions that deliveries had ceased. But Middle East experts take it for granted that they continued regularly down through the latest events.
As for Israel and Latin America, Israel went into the arms selling business after the 1967 war. By the mid-'70s Latin America had become an important customer. Israel currently exports about $2 billion worth of weapons a year. Between 50 and 60 percent goes to Latin American countries.
Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (neighbors of Nicaragua) are all regular customers of Israel. Nicaragua was a customer before the revolution, taking planes, helicopters, tanks, patrol boats, artillery, etc. After the revolution Israel continued to supply its former customers who had become contras. During the phase when Congress prohibited US delivery of weapons to the contras, Israel helped them out.
Israel maintains an arms sales organization throughout Latin America, is equipped to make deliveries on short notice, and provides full service support. In the Iran-contra affair Israel was taking care of regular customers.