Oliver North’s trial this spring surprised everyone: It actually produced some new information. But some of its most important revelations — those touching on Israel’s role in Central America — received little or no attention in the press.

The source of the most interesting tidbits was an official 42-page “memorandum of facts” summarizing material from classified documents for presentation in the trial growing out of the Iran-contra scandal. [1] What caught the attention of the news media and Congress was the memorandum’s allegation that top administration officials in early 1985 proposed circumventing Congressional restrictions on aid to the contras by providing “several enticements to Honduras in exchange for its continued support of the Nicaraguan resistance.” The memorandum cited then-Vice President George Bush’s trip to Honduras in March 1985, only weeks after President Ronald Reagan authorized sending an emissary to spell out the possibly illegal quid pro quo. All this sparked a round of sharp media scrutiny into Bush’s conduct as well as complaints from Congress that some relevant documents had not been turned over to the Iran-contra committees.

What almost no one thought worthy of discussion was the trial memorandum’s important revelations about Israel’s role as a third-party supplier of aid, in particular arms, to the contras. Although it adds little of substance to what close students of Israeli policy in Central America already know, this document for the first time provides dramatic official confirmation of Israel’s role. No less important, it exposes the congressional investigation’s coverup of the crucial triangular relationship between the United States, Israel and the contras.

The trial memorandum actually begins with a discussion of Israel’s role. In 1983, CIA Director William Casey asked the Pentagon to help obtain infantry weapons Israel had captured from the PLO in Lebanon in 1982. “Following discussions between Maj. Gen. Meron of Israel and retired Maj. Gen. Richard Secord of the United States government,” the memorandum discloses, “Israel secretly provided several hundred tons of weapons to the Department of Defense on a grant basis in May 1983.” (Secord later became North’s private agent for dealings with both Iran and the contras.) This operation, dubbed Tipped Kettle, supplied about $10 million worth of arms and ammunition.

The CIA, again working through the Pentagon, arranged another delivery of weapons in the summer of 1984 in Operation Tipped Kettle II: “Although CIA advised Congress that the weapons would be used for various purposes, in fact many of them were provided to the Nicaraguan resistance as appropriated funds ran out.” At the time, as the memorandum notes, the CIA had run up against a ceiling on aid and turned to Israel. In August, Congress finally passed its complete ban on aid to the contras, known as the Boland amendment. By then, the administration’s obsession with raising third-country support for the contras, through such sources as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, South Korea, the People’s Republic of China and Brunei, reached a point of desperation. Israel was always at or near the top of the Reagan team’s list of donors.

The quid pro quo with Israel was much more explicit than with Honduras. According to the memorandum, “The Department of Defense assured Israel that, in exchange for the weapons, the US government would be as flexible as possible in its approach to Israeli military and economic needs, and that it would find a way to compensate Israel for its assistance within the restraints of the law and US policy.”

Jane Hunter has argued that key US concessions in late 1983 and early 1984 — including the signing of a bilateral security agreement and delivery of technology for the Israeli Lavi fighter jet — prefigured this compensation package. The Israeli daily Haaretz noted in December 1983 that meetings between US and Israeli officials earlier that summer had focused on “the intention of the US administration to get Israel to supply the armies of the pro-American regimes” in Central America using funds “the US cannot directly transfer to its allies in the region … paid to Israel directly from the United States.” [2]

In late March 1984, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane proposed to Casey that the NSC explore with the Israelis the possibility of supporting the contras once congressional funds ran out. Casey agreed and informed McFarlane of the CIA’s own approach, through the Pentagon, for arms from Israel.

The next month, McFarlane dispatched Howard Teicher, senior Middle East staff person on the NSC, to discuss the matter with David Kimche, director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and formerly a high-ranking officer in the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. McFarlane instructed Teicher to propose that the aid go through Honduras, where Israel had close relations with the government through its arms deals. Tipped Kettle II, it appears, was the result.

The memorandum leaves a substantial gap in the story as it wanders into a discussion of other third-country transactions. But it does note that “in early August 1985, the White House and various CIA stations learned of reports that, during the visit of David Kimche to the US in May 1985, he had met with Michael Armacost, the undersecretary for political affairs, and had negotiated the continuation of military aid from Israel to Central America.” This wording suggests that Israeli support never really ceased. [3]

Indeed, the following May, North notified Adm. John Poindexter, McFarlane’s successor as national security adviser,

that a representative of Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin had offered on behalf of Israel to furnish Spanish-speaking military trainers and advisers to the resistance. Advisers would be placed in Honduras in connection with an Israeli plan to sell the Kfir fighter to the Hondurans. Other advisers would be placed on the southern front. Lt. Col. North advised Adm. Poindexter that Defense Minister Rabin wanted to meet with him privately in New York to discuss the details, and that Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams liked the idea.

That September, North reported to Poindexter about a subsequent meeting with Rabin in Israel. According to the memorandum’s summation of North’s observations, Rabin

was pleased with the reaction of Poindexter and Secretary Shultz to Rabin’s plans to introduce Kfir fighters into Honduras and in the process to provide advisers to the resistance. Defense Minister Rabin also offered North a recently seized shipment of PLO arms for use by the resistance. Rabin agreed that the ship Erria [controlled by Richard Secord and Albert Hakim] be sent to Haifa to pick up the weapons. Adm. Poindexter approved the plan to pick up the weapons, noting that the transaction would appear to be a private deal between retired Gen. Secord and the Israelis.

Knowledge of this subterfuge may have gone all the way to the top, the memorandum suggests. North recommended to Poindexter that he brief President Reagan prior to a visit by Prime Minister Shimon Peres; if Peres mentioned the arms deal, Reagan “should thank him, since the Israelis held considerable stores of weapons compatible with ordnance used by the resistance.”

All of this should prove embarrassing to Israeli spokesmen like Victor Harel, press counselor at the Israeli embassy in Washington, who stated in 1984, “We deny it completely. Israel is not providing any aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, in any form.” [4] Kimche himself, the chief organizer of this sub rosa arms conduit, recently assured some US television interviewers that “we have not had an ongoing supply of weapons and we have not had military trainers…in the Nicaragua business.” [5] This spring Rabin told an interviewer that “we did not supply arms to the contras,” although he admitted giving the United States “six hundred” Soviet-made rifles, “knowing that they might be supplied to the contras.” Yet contra leaders report that Israel, via the CIA, supplied their forces in Honduras and Costa Rica with 6,000 weapons in 1983 alone. [6]

While making nonsense of such denials, the information in this memorandum represents only a tiny fraction of what various arms dealers in Miami and Central America, contra leaders and US officials have publicly revealed about Israel's role, usually speaking off the record. Israel's commitment to the contras almost certainly began not in 1983 but in late 1982, when Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon met contra leaders in Honduras while on a mission to peddle Kfir fighter jets. Several credible reports indicate that Israeli military experts not only armed but helped train and even supervise the Contras. Some of these facts became public as early as 1983, when high-ranking US officials told the New York Times that the Reagan administration had encouraged Israel to send arms captured in Lebanon “as a way of…supporting insurgent operations against the Nicaraguan government.” No sooner had McFarlane broached his plan to seek additional help from Israel in the spring of 1984 than the press reported it. [7]

The memorandum, moreover, supplies a much more realistic acknowledgement of Israel’s role than the final report produced by the Iran-contra investigating committees of Congress. That enormous volume gave almost no mention to Israeli contra aid. In one five-paragraph section, the report notes McFarlane’s proposal in early 1984 to seek aid from Israel. The alleged upshot was that “Country 1 [Israel] declined to be a part of the plan” and McFarlane decided “we will not raise it further.” [8] The public would never suspect the existence of Tipped Kettle or know that Israel shipped millions of dollars worth of captured PLO arms to Central America.

Later in the Congressional report, we learn that Rabin, apparently out of the blue, offered in May 1986 to provide Israeli military advisers for the contras’ tattered southern front in Costa Rica. In September, the report adds, Rabin asked North if he needed any Soviet bloc weapons and offered to send along a “recently seized PLO shipment captured at sea.” [9] One sentence, nearly 300 pages later, indicates that the Israelis loaded eight tons of arms for the contras that fall. [10] That is the sum of what the report has to say about “Country 1” and the contras.

The committee’s extraordinary delicacy about this relationship can only reflect the political sensitivity of its members — particularly Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), chairman of the Senate committee — toward Israel. The Reagan administration abetted this whitewash. One former official told the Sunday Telegraph of London earlier this year that the White House “suppressed” hundreds of documents on “Israeli mercenaries who, with the knowledge of the Israeli and US governments, flew weapons and ammunition to Tegucigalpa…at a time when Congress had banned military aid. The arms were then distributed to contra bases on the Nicaraguan border.” One Congressional source who saw the documents called them “crucial to understanding the whole scandal” and added, “The American public never knew. It is a cover-up.” [11]

These documents might fill in some of the large gaps that remain in the record. What did Israel get for its support of the contras? Did Israel, as North suggested, advance its schemes to hook the United States on arms sales to Iran by proposing a diversion of profits to the contras? Did Israeli officials have any role in lining up South African support for the contras? And did the Israeli government approve guns-and-drug deals allegedly arranged with the contras by the Panama-based Mossad veteran, Michael Harari? [12]

The answers remain hidden. But the embarrassing information Oliver North pried loose in his defense at least begins to fill in the official record left so blank by Congress.


[1] The memorandum was made public at the trial and is available through the National Security Archive in Washington, DC.
[2] Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott and Jane Hunter, The Iran-Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (Boston: South End Press, 1987), pp. 94-95.
[3] It would appear that Kimche also took advantage of his May 1985 visit to promote a shift in US policy toward Iran, and in particular the secret provision of arms through the intermediary Manuchehr Ghorbanifar. See Marshall et al, pp. 175-179.
[4] Marshall et al, p. 110.
[5] PBS documentary, “Israel: The Covert Connection,” aired nationally May 16, 1989.
[6] Interview with Ranan Lurie, San Francisco Examiner, May 30, 1989; Jon Lee Anderson, “Loose Cannons,” New Outlook, February 1989, p. 23.
[7] Marshall et al, ch. 5.
[8] House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition, Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair, November 1987, p. 38.
[9] Ibid., p. 75.
[10] Ibid., p. 369.
[11] Sunday Telegraph, March 5, 1989, quoted in Israeli Foreign Affairs (April 1989), p. 5.
[12] Newsweek, May 23, 1988.

How to cite this article:

Jonathan Marshall "Israel, the Contras and the North Trial," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).

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