Congress and the Israeli connection

ONE angle in the Iran-contra affair certainly was not persistently and thoroughly explored in the recent hearings: the role played by Israel. Of Israel's connection to the United States sale of arms to Iran, former Sen. John Tower recently said: ``They [the Israelis] were very much interested in the initiative [the US arms sale to Iran] and encouraged the initiative. When it seemed to be flagging, they moved to keep it alive, and we noted this in our report'' [the Tower Commission report].

``But,'' Senator Tower added during a breakfast discussion with reporters, ``if you think Congress is going to touch that political hot potato, you'll wait for a long time.''

Viewers of the hearings did hear some questioning on this subject. Idaho Sen. James McClure, in particular, sought to dig out some information. But he, too, worked cautiously - stressing that his probing was not in any way meant to point a finger of blame at Israel. After all, he said, Israel could well have had its own national goals in mind.

Indeed, the refrain one heard whenever Israel's role came up, from questioners and those testifying, was always along this line: ``After all, we [the US] are big boys. We're responsible for making this decision to sell arms - and we certainly aren't going to pass that responsibility - and blame - along to Israel.''

Mr. Tower himself takes this position. ``We noted in our report,'' he said, ``certain incompatibilities between American policy in the Middle East and Israeli policy in the Middle East.''

He added: ``We [the US] made the decision. If we got flimflammed or had the wool pulled over our eyes, it was our fault.''

But should it rest there? Israel's lead role in the movement of US arms to Iran is not being denied by that country. Here Israel portrays itself as a friend of the US which was helping with the US arms shipments.

And there have been 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. For some time, too, it has been reported that the first suggestion to divert money from the US arms shipments to Iran to the Nicaraguan contras came from Amiram 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 Rear Adm. John Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Mr. Peres has called the allegation that Israel was aware of the rerouting of funds to the contras ``self-serving and distorted.'' But Colonel North in his testimony said that the diversion idea came from the Iranian middleman Manucher Ghorbanifar, who he thought had connections with Israeli intelligence.

Where, too, did the ``intelligence'' come from that the administration relied on to conclude there were ``moderates'' in Iran it could deal with?

On this subject Tower had this to say: ``There generally has been a tendency to accept a great deal of Israeli intelligence at face value. I'm not sure that's a good idea.''

The Iranian ``moderates'' have not been identified. Did they exist? Could they have been part of an Israeli persuasion process to get the US to bolster Iran militarily in its war with Iraq - an Israeli objective?

These are some of the questions in the Iran-contra affair that have not been looked into deeply enough. The Reagan administration certainly doesn't seem to want to point the blame in Israel's direction.

President Reagan has always held a strong regard for Israel - for its toughness in fighting and in dealing with terrorists and for its intelligence. This attitude could have contributed to the acceptance, early on, of the arms-to-Iran proposition.

We are left, largely, with questions, unanswered questions. And Israel hasn't been at all cooperative in getting the questions answered.

The independent counsel, Judge Lawrence Walsh, is having a difficult time tracing the Israeli role.

Since February, he and his aides have tried to obtain Israel's cooperation in interviewing those Israelis involved in the US arms sales to Iran. They even went to Israel for a week and met with Israeli government officials in an effort to get this cooperation. The independent counsel offered a pledge that those Israelis interviewed would not be subject to prosecution in the US - but Israel turned him down.

So the independent counsel has subpoenaed two of these Israelis. Israel has moved to quash the subpoenas. The matter, at this writing, is in the courts.

Certainly, the US has itself to blame. The President has taken the responsibility for the arms sale to Iran - admitting that he pursued that policy too long and too doggedly.

But if there is a possibility that the US got ``suckered'' into it by Israel - shouldn't that be looked into, thoroughly? And shouldn't the possibility that the diversion idea did originally come from Israel be pursued diligently?

Tower explains Congress's tiptoeing around Israel's involvement by referring to the political pressures exerted on Congress. He says it is easy to understand Congress's hesitancy ``when you consider the influence that AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israeli lobby] has on Congress.''

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

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