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Kimche: The Missing Link Between Iran and Contras?

January 11, 1987|Richard B. Straus | Richard B. Straus, a Washington-based journalist, is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey.

WASHINGTON — It wasn't supposed to end this way, four Americans isolated on the top floor of the old Hilton Hotel in Tehran, waiting in vain for some senior Iranian officials to share their chocolate cake. This certainly isn't what the leader of the U.S. delegation, former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane, had in mind when, years before, he began musing about a new U.S.-Iranian dialogue.

Hearing it from a number of U.S. officials, McFarlane had two men to thank for helping to bring him to this sorry state. The first was the now well-known Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. What is not so well known is that North actually brought the chocolate cake--which, by the way, was not in the shape of a key--to Tehran as a joke. Apparently one of the Iranian middlemen whom North dealt with had once suggested facetiously, "When you come to Iran bring a chocolate cake." The other was McFarlane's friend and sometime intellectual godfather, David Kimche.

David Kimche? At first glance this English-accented, toupee-wearing, former Israeli official is not very impressive. From 1981 until 1986, he served as director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, the top civil service position.

But to Americans and Israelis who knew him well, Kimche was no ordinary career bureaucrat. North has reportedly said Kimche was the man who first suggested diverting profits from the Iranian arms sales to aid the contras in Nicaragua (an assertion Kimche vehemently denies). While other, more impartial, American officials doubt this charge, they say that Kimche provided the intellectual underpinnings for the Iran initiative. "He gave McFarlane much of what passed for an intellectual construct," said one critical State Department official. "Of course it helped that McFarlane thought the Israelis knew everything."

But Kimche could be easy to admire. He was seen as a man of action as well as intellect. He had spent most of his professional life in the Mossad, Israel's CIA, rising to the No. 2 position before moving over to the Foreign Ministry. His sponsor there was Yitzhak Shamir (now Israel's prime minister), then foreign minister under Menachem Begin and a former Mossad operative. Kimche's appointment raised an outcry from Israel's Foreign Service Corps--the office of director general had traditionally been reserved for a Foreign Service professional. But Begin and Shamir held firm and countered with an argument familiar to Americans over the past six years: Professionals lack the requisite toughness to promote a bold and decisive foreign policy.

Kimche was nothing if not bold and decisive. He quickly became a leading advocate of new approaches to the Maronite Christians in Lebanon, in particular an advocate of their powerful, young leader, Bashir Gemayel. "Kimche thought Israel could restructure Lebanon, eliminate the Palestine Liberation Organization and neutralize the Syrians," said one State Department Middle East expert. "He envisioned a powerful Christian-led Lebanese state under the control of Bashir."

With his grandiose schemes for Lebanon, Kimche alienated many former Mossad colleagues, not to mention his fellow Foreign Ministry officials. But as if to compensate for these losses, he gained some new supporters--Americans, notably McFarlane, a rising star at the State Department who was a confidant of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.

In early 1982, Haig sent McFarlane to Jerusalem to begin a series of meetings on strategic cooperation between Israel and the United States. The secretary was looking for a way to fashion an alliance of anti-communist, pro-Western Middle East states--Israel and Arab alike. And Kimche was the man to see.

It soon became apparent that the Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia, would have nothing to do with an alliance that included Israel. For that matter, the Israelis had different priorities. According to Administration officials, Kimche from the beginning urged the United States to cultivate ties with Ethiopia, Turkey and Iran. This policy was in keeping with Israel's long-standing objective of promoting non-Arab regional states.

Despite the difference in emphasis, McFarlane came away impressed. As one veteran of these meetings explains, "Kimche was that rare breed, an intellectual who was also a hard-nosed operative." Another U.S. official who spent many hours in meetings with Kimche put it this way: "He was non-ideological, non-flamboyant, but self-confident--a pleasure to do business with."

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