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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.

Before McFarlane moved over to the National Security Council staff in 1982, he arranged for Kimche to meet regularly with senior State Department officials. These spring and fall gatherings, held alternately in Washington and Jerusalem, are an opportunity for both sides, in the words of one U.S. official, "to look at the big picture." Though no subject is off limits, the business of the peace process has rarely been raised because there are so many other opportunities for U.S. and Israeli officials to talk about it. And because of Kimche's interest in the Third World, Africa, Latin America and Iran tended to be emphasized.

In Africa, Kimche was looking for U.S. assistance in re-establishing Israel's diplomatic position, undermined by the 1973 Yom Kippur War and Jerusalem's ties to the white minority regime in South Africa. But in Latin America, particularly in Central America, Kimche sought to assist the United States.

Even before the rise of the Sandinistas, Central America was a bastion of support for Israel. Moreover, Central American countries are among Israel's few consistent supporters in the United Nations. In return, Israel provides economic assistance and arms to these countries. In fact, Sandinista opposition to Israel can be traced to Jerusalem's unswerving military support for the Somozas (who provided a crucial arms flow to Israel during its 1948 War of Independence). And Israeli arms merchants were among the last to leave Managua after the fall of Anastasio Somoza.

Reagan Administration officials quickly recognized the potential benefits of a more active Israeli role in Central America. "It is easier for Israelis to win hearts and minds in Latin America than for us," said one U.S. official. "They are more effective with their aid projects and they can deliver more quickly." Politically, Kimche and his U.S. counterparts discussed ways of stopping what one Administration participant in the meetings called "the Sandinistas' momentum." This official cites, for example, discussions in 1985 about denying Nicaragua the chairmanship of the Nonaligned Movement.

The year 1985 was also a time for renewed discussions about an opening to Iran. Kimche, in Washington for his formal talks at the State Department, used the opportunity to meet with McFarlane. In trotting out his old arguments about the need to improve relations with non-Arab states, Kimche found a new receptivity. "Kimche was concerned about the long-term prospects in Iran. He worried aloud about the possibility of Soviet inroads after the death of Khomeini," said one U.S. official.

This was, of course, the argument that later surfaced as the official Administration rationale for selling arms to Iran. But Kimche, according to an informed Administration source, had no illusions about the real U.S. motivation: "For better or worse Kimche knew of our obsession with the hostages but played the opening to Iran for all it was worth." As one State Department critic said, "McFarlane needed an urbane, sophisticated rationale and Kimche gave it to him."

Another official, who knows Kimche well, observed, "He was a hands-on guy. And he enjoyed taking risks." This official thought for a moment and then said, "sounds a lot like Ollie North."

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