JERUSALEM — Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin charged Friday that former National Security Council staff member Oliver L. North proposed to him in May, 1986, that Israel send between 20 and 50 Spanish-speaking instructors to aid the anti-government contras fighting in Nicaragua.
In a statement released through the Defense Ministry's spokesman, Rabin quoted North as having told him during a meeting at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel that he--North--had suggested the idea to President Reagan.
The proposal as outlined by Rabin would have been in apparent violation of a congressional ban in force at the time on providing or soliciting military aid for the contras.
Rabin's account, issued in response to allegations in the Tower Commission report that Rabin had initiated the offer to aid the contras, gave no indication about how Reagan may have reacted to North's reported suggestion.
First Public Accusation
The account nevertheless marked the first time that an Israeli official had publicly accused a Reagan Administration functionary by name of soliciting help for the Nicaraguan rebels.
The Tower Commission report, released Thursday, refers to a memorandum from North to former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter in which it is alleged that Rabin offered aid for the contras.
The report suggests that Rabin's alleged offer was made conditional on U.S. approval for Israel to sell Kfir jet fighters to Honduras. The Kfir is an Israeli aircraft but, because it uses American engines and other U.S.-made parts, Israel is required under bilateral agreements to get Washington's permission for any export sales.
"This allegation is totally groundless," Friday's statement from the Defense Ministry said. "On the contrary, it was Col. North who asked for such help, which was refused by the defense minister."
'Urgent' Request Told
The statement added that North had telephoned to ask for an "urgent" meeting with Rabin toward the end of the latter's visit to the United States in May, 1986.
"In a meeting which took place at (New York's) Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Col. North dwelt at length on the problems of the contras and said he had suggested to the United States President to organize a private group of some 20 to 50 Israeli or British instructors," according to the Israeli account.
"Col. North said he preferred a group of Israeli instructors, since they have greater experience and also speak Spanish," the Israeli statement went on. "In his opinion, the matter had to be conducted privately and not via the governments.
"Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin rejected the proposal out of hand during his meeting with Col. North," the statement concluded.
Intelligence Panel's Report
The Tower Commission's disclosure of last May's American-Israeli contact on the subject of the contras was new, although Rabin was mentioned in an account about a similar contact contained in last month's Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Iranian arms affair.
That report quoted another memorandum from North to Poindexter referring to an alleged offer by Rabin on Sept. 12, 1986, to supply "a significant quantity of captured Soviet Bloc arms for use by the Nicaraguan resistance."
In a statement issued through his spokesman on Jan. 30, Rabin denied that account also. "The truth is that an American request from an official of the National Security Council to Mr. Rabin that Israel directly help the contras was rejected," he said. In that case, however, the defense minister did not identify the American official by name, as he did on Friday.
Israeli officials have insisted since the affair became public in November that, while they helped transfer arms to Iran at U.S. request, they had nothing to do with the contras.
Privately, Israeli sources concede that arms from here have reached the Nicaraguan rebels but say that they have done so indirectly, through third parties.
Rabin's was the most substantive reaction here Friday to the long-awaited Tower Commission report. The report concluded that Israel had played a key role in keeping the Iranian arms initiative alive, sometimes in the face of doubts "expressed by critical U.S. participants."
However, the commission stated: "U.S. decision-makers made their own decisions and must bear responsibility for the consequences."
A spokesman for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, saying that the government had not yet had time to study the report, refused to comment beyond saying that the document "seems to vindicate the Israeli government's position that Israel was not a central figure in the affair."
'Balance Is Good'
"It appears that, all in all, the balance is good for Israel," said a senior Foreign Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Israelis are mentioned, but there is no responsibility whatsoever from the Israeli standpoint. The report seems to say whatever the Israelis did or didn't do, the decision was an American decision, and the blunder, if there was a blunder, was American."
Tower Commission members Edmund S. Muskie, a former secretary of state, and Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser, said Thursday that they did not have "a full picture" of Israel's role because the Jerusalem government had rejected a request that the panel be permitted to question Israeli participants in the affair.
Prime Minister Shamir has said that Israel will respond to written questions about the Iran affair submitted through normal government channels but that it would be an infringement of Israel's sovereignty to allow government officials and agents to be questioned in person.