Spy Takes US-Israeli Secrets to Grave
Last week’s death of Israeli spymaster David Kimche – and the omissions in his obituaries about his most sensitive operations, especially those regarding the United States – are a reminder of how much crucial history is being lost as key figures from this era take their secrets to the grave.
The failure to debrief as many of these people as possible can be blamed significantly on U.S. mainstream journalists who in years past took the lead in collecting, vetting and presenting serious evidence of historical wrongdoing, such as the Pentagon Papers secrets about the Vietnam War and complex political scandals like Watergate.
But in recent years, newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have ignored many national security crimes or even have gone on the offensive against journalists who tried to examine them, such as the ugly assault on investigative reporter Gary Webb over his work on the now-CIA-admitted cocaine trafficking by Ronald Reagan’s Nicaraguan contra rebels.
The problem has been compounded by the timidity of Democratic leaders to conduct thorough investigations of Republican wrongdoing, such as in 1993 when Bill Clinton became President and in 2009 under Barack Obama. In both cases, new Democratic administrations thought that looking forward, not backward, would achieve some measure of bipartisanship. Not likely.
And, the American Left has offered little help, usually staying on the sidelines when there's evidence of a genuine government conspiracy (though some leftists have gotten carried away with invented conspiracies, such as the 9/11 “truth” movement’s witness-less claims about "controlled demolitions" of the Twin Towers and "a missile, not a plane, hitting the Pentagon.”)
This combination of disinterest in actual conspiracies and fascination with conspiracy parlor games has made the assembling of real history about the past several decades next to impossible.
Now, Kimche’s death on March 8 marks another lost opportunity. Most newspaper obituaries touched on some of the known high- and low-points of his long career as a spy/diplomat who was called “the man with the suitcase” for his work with the Mossad paying off foreign officials and spreading around money that advanced Israel’s national security goals.
Yet, from these obits, it’s clear that much more was known about Kimche’s clandestine work bribing African despots or supplying guns to right-wing militaries in Central America than his purported involvement in influencing political events in Washington, possibly because Israel and its many supporters regard the U.S. connection as still far too sensitive.
Even the better obits neglected how Kimche, in the late 1970s, shared Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s contempt for President Jimmy Carter.
Though Kimche described the animosity in his 1991 book, The Last Option, this important story was left out of his obits as was the evidence of what Begin’s right-wing Likud government may have done to stop Carter from gaining a second term and thus blocking Likud's plans for expanding Israeli territory beyond its pre-1967 borders.
In 1978, Carter pushed Begin into agreeing to the Camp David peace accords, which returned the Sinai to Egypt in exchange for promises of peace. Privately, Begin was furious about what he regarded as Carter’s bullying tactics.
The next year, Carter failed to protect the Shah of Iran, an important Israeli regional ally who was forced from power by Islamic militants. Then, when Carter acceded to demands from the Shah’s supporters to admit him to New York for cancer treatment, Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage.
In 1980, as Carter turned to his reelection campaign, Begin saw dangers and opportunities. In The Last Option, Kimche revealed the depth of the hostilities between the two leaders because of Carter’s perceived favoritism for the Palestinians and Begin’s fear that Israel would be forced to withdraw from the West Bank if Carter won a second term.
“Begin was being set up for diplomatic slaughter by the master butchers in Washington,” Kimche wrote. “They had, moreover, the apparent blessing of the two presidents, Carter and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, for this bizarre and clumsy attempt at collusion designed to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
Kimche continued, “This plan – prepared behind Israel’s back and without her knowledge – must rank as a unique attempt in United States’s diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation.”
Begin's alarm was driven by the prospect of Carter being freed from the pressure of having to face another election, according to Kimche.
“Unbeknownst to the Israeli negotiators, the Egyptians held an ace up their sleeves, and they were waiting to play it,” Kimche wrote. “The card was President Carter’s tacit agreement that after the American presidential elections in November 1980, when Carter expected to be re-elected for a second term, he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby.”
So, by spring 1980, Begin had privately sided with the Republicans, whose presidential campaign was to be led by Ronald Reagan. Carter soon learned that the Israelis were taking sides with his Republican rivals.
Questioned by congressional investigators in 1992 regarding allegations about Israel conspiring with Republicans in 1980 to help unseat him, Carter said he realized by April 1980 that “Israel cast their lot with Reagan,” according to notes I found among the unpublished documents in the files of a House task force that had looked into the so-called October Surprise case.
Carter traced the Israeli opposition to his reelection to a “lingering concern [among] Jewish leaders that I was too friendly with Arabs.”
Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski also recognized this Israeli hostility. In an interview, Brzezinski said Carter's White House was aware that the Begin government had “an obvious preference for a Reagan victory.”
Doing What Was Necessary
Begin was also not a man to be trifled with. Before Israel’s independence in 1948, he had led a Zionist terrorist group, and he had founded the right-wing Likud Party in 1973 with the goal of “changing the facts on the ground” by placing Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas. He would do whatever he felt necessary to advance what he saw as Israeli security interests.
Begin’s anger over the Sinai deal and his fear of Carter’s reelection set the stage for secret collaboration between Begin and the Republicans, according to another former Israeli intelligence official, Ari Ben-Menashe.
“Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David,” Ben-Menashe wrote in his 1992 memoir, Profits of War. “As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel’s back.”
Ben-Menashe, an Iranian-born Jew who had immigrated to Israel as a teen-ager, became part of a secret Israeli program to reestablish its Iranian intelligence network that had been decimated by the Islamic revolution. Ben-Menashe wrote that Begin authorized shipments to Iran of small arms and some spare parts, via South Africa, as early as September 1979.
By April 1980, however, Carter had learned about covert Israeli shipments, which included 300 tires for Iran’s U.S.-supplied jet fighters, prompting an angry complaint from Carter who had imposed an arms embargo of Iran until the U.S. hostages were freed.
“There had been a rather tense discussion between President Carter and Prime Minister Begin in the spring of 1980 in which the President made clear that the Israelis had to stop that, and that we knew that they were doing it, and that we would not allow it to continue, at least not allow it to continue privately and without the knowledge of the American people,” Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell told me.
“And it stopped,” Powell said.
At least, it stopped temporarily.
Extensive evidence now exists that Begin’s preference for Reagan led the Israelis to join in a covert operation with Republicans to contact Iranian leaders behind Carter’s back, interfering with the President’s efforts to free the 52 American hostages before the November 1980 elections.
David Kimche could have been a key witness to these events. Ben-Menashe identified the Israeli spymaster as a middleman between Begin and CIA veterans who initially supported former CIA Director George H.W. Bush, who ran against Reagan before ending up as his vice presidential choice.
One of those CIA old-timers was Miles Copeland, who had formed an ad hoc group called “Spooks for Bush” and who was disgusted that Carter was looking so weak in the confrontation with the Iranians over the U.S. hostages.
According to Copeland’s 1989 memoir, The Game Player, Copeland and some other CIA veterans devised their own hostage-rescue plan, and he met to discuss it with an old friend, ex-CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton.
Angleton, the CIA’s legendary spy hunter who had close ties to Israel, “brought to lunch a Mossad chap who confided that his service had identified at least half of the ‘students,’ even to the extent of having their home addresses in Teheran,” Copeland wrote. “He gave me a rundown on what sort of kids they were. Most of them, he said, were just that, kids.”
Though Copeland, who died in 1991, did not disclose the identity of the “Mossad chap,” Ben-Menashe referenced the same meeting in his own memoir and claimed the Israeli representative was Kimche.
“A meeting between Miles Copeland and Israeli intelligence officers was held at a Georgetown house in Washington, D.C.,” Ben-Menashe wrote. “The Israelis were happy to deal with any initiative [regarding the hostages] but Carter’s.
" David Kimche, chief of Tevel, the foreign relations unit of Mossad, was the senior Israeli at the meeting. …The Israelis and the Copeland group came up with a two-pronged plan to use quiet diplomacy with the Iranians and to draw up a scheme for military action against Iran that would not jeopardize the lives of the hostages.”
In late February 1980, Seyeed Mehdi Kashani, an Iranian emissary, arrived in Israel to discuss Iran’s growing desperation for aircraft spare parts, Ben-Menashe wrote. Kashani, whom Ben-Menashe had known from their school days in Tehran, also revealed that overtures from Republican emissaries regarding the hostages already had been received, Ben-Menashe wrote.
“Kashani said that the secret ex-CIA-Miles-Copeland group was aware that any deal cut with the Iranians would have to include the Israelis because they would have to be used as a third party to sell military equipment to Iran,” according to Ben-Menashe.
In his book and sworn testimony, Ben-Menashe asserted that GOP vice presidential candidate Bush personally participated in a key meeting in October 1980 in Paris. In 1992, at two press conferences, then-President Bush denied that claim but never agreed to be questioned under oath in a formal government inquiry.
After Reagan won the election -- and the U.S. hostages were released immediately after Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981 -- Israeli-brokered weapons shipments flowed to Iran with the secret blessing of the new Republican administration.
Extensive evidence also exists to support the allegations of a Republican-Israeli-Iranian collaboration – including statements from senior Iranian officials, international arms dealers, intelligence operatives, and Middle East political figures (including a cryptic confirmation from Begin’s successor Yitzhak Shamir). But the truth about the October Surprise case remains in dispute. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Despite the evidence, the October Surprise case, like the contra-cocaine dispute, became a taboo topic within the U.S. political/media establishment. That, in turn, diminished the eagerness of career-oriented historians to challenge the conventional wisdom.
For example, popular historian Douglas Brinkley was witness to an important October Surprise admission but then shied away from his own evidence.
In the mid-1990s, while working on a book about Carter’s post-presidency, Brinkley was present for a face-to-face meeting between Carter and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat, when Arafat tried to confess a role in the October Surprise maneuvering.
“There is something I want to tell you,” Arafat said, addressing Carter at a meeting in Arafat’s bunker in Gaza City. “You should know that in 1980 the Republicans approached me with an arms deal [for the PLO] if I could arrange to keep the hostages in Iran until after the [U.S. presidential] election.”
Arafat insisted that he rebuffed the offer, but Carter discouraged any further comments, apparently not wanting to reopen the October Surprise controversy and open himself to accusations that he was engaging in sour grapes.
Naively perhaps, Brinkley recounted this extraordinary exchange in an article for the fall 1996 issue of Diplomatic History, a scholarly quarterly. Later, through a spokesman, Carter confirmed to me that the conversation with Arafat had occurred as described by Brinkley.
However, when Brinkley got around to writing his much more widely circulated book on Carter, The Unfinished Presidency, the startling Arafat admission was missing. After getting a better feel for the October Surprise taboo, Brinkley presumably concluded that his professional standing would be hurt by an association with the ugly controversy.
Still, Arafat’s account did not stand alone. In 1990, I had interviewed Arafat’s longtime confidant Bassam Abu Sharif who also described how a senior figure in the Reagan campaign had contacted Arafat and the PLO in Beirut about engineering a delay in the hostage release.
“It was important for Reagan not to have any of the hostages released during the remaining days of President Carter,” Abu Sharif said. “The offer was, ‘if you block the release of hostages, then the White House would be open for the PLO.’ In spite of that, we turned that down. …I guess the same offer was given to others, and I believe that some accepted to do it and managed to block the release of hostages.”
Other PLO sources said Arafat discovered during a September 1980 trip to Iran that his hostage intervention was superfluous since the Republicans already had established other back channels to the radical Islamic mullahs.
However, Brinkley’s hesitation to add his first-hand knowledge to the October Surprise history suggests that the idea of simply “leaving this one to the historians” won’t result in a satisfactory outcome if people want to know what really happened during this important early chapter of the history from the past three decades.
Now, with the death of Kimche, the voice of one more witness who might have filled in important details has fallen silent.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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