JERUSALEM — An Israeli minister called Sunday for an "internal investigation" into this country's role in the Iranian arms affair and publication of a government white paper in response to accusations that Israel was the driving force behind the ill-fated program.
Communications Minister Amnon Rubenstein told reporters after the government's regular Cabinet meeting Sunday that while he has "total trust" in statements by the country's top leaders about the affair, it is "always a possibility" that they were misled by others.
And, he added, "from the point of view of the efficacy of the Israeli position, I think that we ought to look into the matter and rebut the allegations, whatever they are."
Rubenstein's remarks came amid fresh revelations about the contents of a still unpublished U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the affair--revelations that suggest a much more central Israeli role than previously acknowledged in both originating and executing U.S. arms shipments to Iran and the alleged diversion of funds from those sales to the Nicaraguan \o7 contras.\f7
It was reported here Sunday that three Israelis intimately involved in the first stages of the effort met in West Germany in late 1984 with Iranian arms dealer Manucher Ghorbanifar to discuss weapons sales and other ways to open new Israeli channels to Iran. The Israelis were David Kimche, then director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Al Schwimmer, founder of Israel Aircraft and special consultant to then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and Israeli arms dealer Jacob Nimrodi.
According to the report, which was published by the newspaper Yedioth Ahranot and confirmed separately by a source who has read the Senate document, wealthy Saudi Arabian businessman Adnan Khashoggi is said to have joined the discussions later.
"The problem," the Senate document concludes, "was to convince the United States."
Israeli officials have insisted repeatedly that whatever Israel did in connection with the Iranian arms program was done at the request of the United States--that Israel did not instigate the effort and that it specifically had nothing to do with any transfer of funds to the contras.
Predates First Approach
However, the reported meeting in West Germany predates by at least three months what Israeli officials have described privately as the first approach by the Reagan Administration for help in establishing contact with Iranian "moderates" and in seeking the release of American hostages held by pro-Iranian elements in Lebanon.
That approach, Israeli officials have maintained, was by Michael A. Ledeen, who met with Peres in April, 1985, in his capacity as a consultant to the National Security Council and representative of President Reagan.
According to the Senate report, as quoted by the Israeli media, Ledeen met Ghorbanifar at Nimrodi's home during the same trip and became convinced that the Iranian was "a serious person with good contacts among moderates in Iran."
Meanwhile, Nimrodi told Ledeen that he had recently been in Iran and found the situation there "in a state of flux." The time was ripe, he advised, for the United States to take a fresh look at its policy.
During a second visit later that spring, Peres is said to have introduced Ledeen to Shlomo Gazit, former head of Israeli military intelligence, with whom he discussed ways of establishing new contacts in Iran. Gazit arranged a meeting for Ledeen with five recent Iranian Jewish immigrants who helped persuade the NSC adviser that the situation was ripe for an initiative.
Reportedly Sold Arms
It was previously reported that the Senate document refers to an April 17, 1985, CIA intelligence evaluation that concluded that despite its official denials, Israel was already operating its own arms pipeline to Iran. While no American-supplied arms were being shipped directly to Iran by Israel at the time, the CIA said, Israeli officials were turning a blind eye to sales of such weapons by arms merchants as long as they were through third parties.
"Sometimes in Israel you don't know who represents whom--the arms dealers, the government or the government the arms dealers," the Senate document quotes the CIA evaluation as saying.
Yedioth Ahranot quoted the Senate report Sunday as saying that developments in the wake of the June, 1985, hijacking of a TWA jetliner by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon were important because they enhanced the reputation of Ghorbanifar, who had previously failed three CIA lie detector tests.
Israeli officials claimed that they had asked Ghorbanifar to use his Iranian contacts to seek release of the last four Americans held hostage by the plane's hijackers. And when the four were freed two days later, it convinced even some of the skeptics that the arms merchant could be an effective go-between.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir criticized leaks from the Senate committee report Saturday night as "not accurate, without foundation, and a distortion of the truth."
'Not Made Lightheartedly'
But Communications Minister Rubenstein said he argued Sunday: "I don't think that from the point of view of public opinion this denial is enough. . . . I think that anybody who knows Israeli politics knows that such denials would not be made lightheartedly. But in order to be more efficacious, I would accompany these denials with a full investigatory report conducted on behalf of the whole government."