The Iran affair - and Reagan's close ties with Israel

COULD it be that one of the most important lessons to be learned from the Iran-contra affair is that the President and his administration had become too close to Israel? We are dealing with ``reports'' and ``leaks'' now in viewing these controversial Iran-contra-related transactions. From the Senate Intelligence Committee comes a reported divulgence that the first suggestion to divert money from the US arms shipments to Iran to the Nicaraguan contras came from Amiran Nir, the special assistant to Shimon Peres, then Israeli prime minister. It has been alleged that Mr. Nir came up with this idea at a meeting last January with Vice-Adm. John Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North.

But Mr. Peres has called this allegation ``self-serving and distorted,'' as part of his repeated denials that Israel was aware of the rerouting of funds to the contras.

Israel's lead role in the movement of arms to Iran is not being denied, however. Here Israel portrays itself as a friend of the United States which was merely helping with the US arms shipments. But here, too, there are ``reports'' that Israel may have been the source of the idea that sending arms to ``moderates'' in Iran was both possible and good for the long-term interests of both Israel and the US.

The admiration within the Reagan administration for Israel's handling of terrorism is well known. Moreover, since his early campaigning days, President Reagan's great admiration for Israel has been expressed again and again. He has called himself a friend of Israel, and within the Jewish community in the US the President has been accepted as a reliable and consistent supporter of Israeli interests. Reagan's high regard for Israel's intelligence and anti-terrorist skills was also well known.

So it doesn't take any leap in logic to at least speculate along these lines: that it was out of this context of great respect for Israeli expertise that Reagan (on the arms shipments to Iran) and some people within the Reagan administration (on the diversion of funds to the contras) were led to make moves that now threaten the usefulness of a President who had been particularly effective.

Oh, no, this speculation doesn't go so far as to raise the possibility that Israel was to blame for this. Israel, indeed, has its own interests and the right to fulfill them. For its own survival Israel may well feel that it should do all it can to try to work out a better, long-term relationship with ``moderates'' in Iran. Also, since it owes so much to the US, it might well feel it should ``help'' the US in its arms dealings in the Mideast.

Israel, too, would not be breaking any internal laws in being a part of arms shipments to Iran or, for that matter, if it was a part of the diversion of funds to the contras.

The upshot of all this is that officials at the top of the Reagan administration may have let their admiration of Israel and even Israeli advice get in the way of their better judgment in the Iran-contra affair. Not all US officials were so blinded, however.

The exceedingly strong tie between Israel and the Reagan administration has been described recently by Richard B. Straus, editor of the Middle East Policy Survey and previously a staff member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israel lobby. ``Even the President's harshest critics in the liberal Jewish community,'' Mr. Straus writes, ``acknowledge he is the most viscerally pro-Israel President since the founding of the state.'' Straus also portrays an AIPAC lobby that now sees the US-Israeli relationship as having become a deep, broad-based partnership - one that is progressing toward a full-fledged diplomatic and military alliance.

It should be noted here, too, that the Reagan administration now has told the Israeli prime minister that it does not seek to make Israel a scapegoat in the Iran arms affair. This message to Yitzhak Shamir came after what appeared to be encouragement from some administration sources for the publication of stories that would stress Israel's role in the Iran-contra dealings. Indeed, there seemed to be an administration hope that the divulgence of Israeli involvement would redirect the public's finger of blame in that direction.

Actually, there was little evidence that the disclosures of Israel's role in what many are calling ``Iranscam'' was diverting the US public from holding the Reagan administration fully responsible for what took place. For - again - there is a public acceptance that Israel had some entirely different and quite legitimate fish to fry in being involved in these transactions.

At the same time, however, the US public may come to accept this rationale for the genesis of the Iran-contra deals: that the US initiatives resulted from the near-awe held by the President and his advisers for Israel's intelligence and anti-terrorist skills and for its expertise in the Mideast.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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