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Israelis Erect Wall of Silence Around Their Role

Times Staff Writer

Israeli officials, stunned by charges that funds for the arms they shipped to Iran were diverted to Nicaraguan rebels but anxious to avoid any direct confrontation with the Reagan Administration, again threw up a wall of silence Wednesday about their role in the affair.

The wall came down briefly after an emergency meeting of top officials the night before, when the government admitted for the first time that it had helped transfer arms to Iran “at the request of the U.S.” and denied any knowledge of the Nicaraguan connection.

But despite pressure from the foreign and domestic press and opposition lawmakers for further disclosures, Israeli leaders refused to go much beyond those two basic points Wednesday.

First-Shipment Approval

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For example, officials repeatedly sidestepped the question of precisely who in the Reagan Administration approved the first shipment of arms to Iran in the late summer of 1985, a shipment that U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III on Tuesday said was unauthorized.

“It (the approval) did come from the White House, and we had no reason to doubt that it was an authoritative request,” one senior official said of that initial weapons transfer.

But asked specifically who gave the go-ahead, this official replied, “This is something for the United States.”

Israeli officials also refused to answer questions about who set the price of the arms transferred to Iran and the origins of the Swiss bank account into which they say the Iranians paid for the weapons.

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Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister Shimon Peres summed up his country’s message in four sentences during a sometimes emotional 30-minute response to two parliamentary motions of no confidence over the affair.

‘Not for Israel’

“Israel did not earn one red cent from this,” he said. “This is not an Israeli operation. This is a matter for the United States, not for Israel. Israel was asked for help, and it did.”

Meese said that Israeli middlemen deposited the money collected from Iran for the arms into a Swiss bank account maintained for the Nicaraguan rebels, known as contras. Israeli officials since then have regarded Meese’s surprise announcement as an accusation, saying privately that they are upset that he would make such a potentially damaging statement without more investigation.

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There was widespread suspicion here that some members of the Reagan Administration wanted to deflect criticism of their own roles by diverting attention to Israel. “Somebody’s trying to unload something on us,” charged one senior Israeli official.

Housing Minister and Deputy Prime Minister David Levy commented in an Israel radio interview: “When Israel is called on to help an ally, Israel will. But when Israel is accused of being a channel for money to the contras, it is unfair.”

Harry Wall, director of the Israeli office of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, commented: “Israel faces some difficult days ahead. It’s caught in the middle of a major controversy, saddled with a credibility problem, and cannot count, as in previous crises, on (Secretary of State George P.) Shultz and (President) Reagan to come to the rescue.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for the first time briefed the so-called “inner Cabinet” of 10 senior Israeli ministers on the Iran arms affair Wednesday. But a government spokesman said the ministers took no action.

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Some opposition Knesset members called for a commission of inquiry into the affair, charging that Israel’s involvement was a mistake on moral, military and political grounds.

According to some Israeli officials, the figure most likely to be dismissed over the affair--if it comes to that--is Amiram Nir, the prime minister’s adviser on terrorism and the official who reportedly took over control of the arms-to-Iran program for Israel in late 1985.


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