IF THE IRAN-CONTRA hearings are any guide, the joint Congressional report due to be released in a week will continue to duck a major aspect of the entire affair -- the role of Israel. This evasion upsets a number of people, including perhaps Vice President George Bush, who told the Tower Commission that in his view the Iran initiative was doomed from the start because the administration had allowed itself "to be placed in the hands of the Israelis." Later Bush privately confided to aides he never "felt comfortable" with an operation "led by the Israelis."
Bush and other critics may have a right to be upset that Israel, which was, after all, code-named "Country #1" during the Iran hearings, has gotten off practically scot-free. But that is not to say the Israelis led the United States astray. On the contrary, the Israelis did not have to lead the Reagan administration at all. On the National Security Council staff in particular the folks from Jerusalem found true soul mates.
As Lt. Col. Oliver North testified before the joint Congressional committee, he was so taken with the way the Israelis operated that he appropriated their money-laundering techniques. And North's former boss, Robert McFarlane, in his one emotional outburst before the congressional panel, gave further evidence of this belief in doing business Israeli-style. His voice rising in anger against those who dare to suggest that we abandon American hostages, McFarlane declared this isn't the way the Israelis would operate.
What McFarlane, North and other key NSC staffers overlooked is that Israel is a small state of 4 million perpetually at war while the United States, a superpower, leads an alliance at least nominally at peace. More important, the Israeli people -- after nearly four decades of war -- have a very different compact with their government than we do with ours. Israeli leaders are allowed a great deal of latitude in the conduct of national-security matters, including the right to operate in complete secrecy. And when things do go wrong, the Israelis can simply deny they ever happened.
A perfect example of the essential difference is the contrast in fates between Oliver North and his Israeli counterpart, Amiram Nir. While North awakes each morning to face the prospect of grand jury indictment, his old comrade Nir is quietly chauffered to work at the same job. Nir, a protege of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres is, according to one knowledgeable Israeli, being kept by his successor "because we want to show that he did nothing wrong."
To be fair, the NSC staff was not operating in a vacuum. America's love affair with Israel's swashbuckling style goes back to the founding of the Jewish state. Time and again the Israelis, seemingly against all odds, have outwitted and outfought their adversaries. And they have achieved their ends with a minimum of domestic fuss, a blatant disregard for diplomatic niceties and a maximum use of force. For most Americans, the apotheosis of the Israeli style was the lightning six-day victory in 1967 over the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
But it was not until the advent of the Reagan administration that Israeli derring-do graduated from merely impressing the arm-chair warrior to inspiring White House policy. Ronald Reagan was elected against a backdrop of international terrorism. So it was not a surprise when the new secretary of state, Alexander Haig, announced soon after taking office that fighting terrorism would have an importance to the Reagan administration equal to that of its predecessor's concern for human rights.
However, Haig and his people soon learned that declaring war on international terrorism was a good deal easier than waging it. It would take two secretaries of state and four national-security advisers five years before the United States scored the kind of victory that made people sit up and take notice. And in finally being able to drop a few bombs on the hapless Muammar Qaddafy, they had to wrestle with a foot-dragging bureaucracy, uncooperative allies and a snooping press.
In the meantime, the Israelis had carried out countless military operations and a full-scale "war against terrorism" in Lebanon. For many at the NSC, Lebanon would prove to be a pivotal experience. At home they learned the difficulties of trying to employ US military power in the teeth of Pentagon opposition. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger repeatedly frustrated NSC attempts to expand the U.S. military role in Lebanon.
After the muddled U.S. response to the terrorist bombing that killed 241 servicemen in Beirut, President Reagan, most of his administration and, for that matter, the American people were content to walk away from Lebanon as if it were a bad dream. Not so the NSC staff. They seethed in frustration over what they perceived to be a humiliating surrender to Pentagon pusillanimity in the face of international terrorism.
Sharing their frustration were many Israelis, including one key official, David Kimche, Director General of Israel's Foreign Ministry. A former number two at the Mossad, Israel's CIA, Kimche in both capacities was, in the view of many Israelis, the man responsible for their Lebanon misadventure. He was also a close confidant of McFarlane's. Since 1982 McFarlane and Kimche had met regularly. And Kimche had become, in effect, McFarlane's intellectual godfather.
The first public evidence of how far the administration had come in embracing the Israeli style occurred on October 1, 1985 with Israel's raid against PLO headquarters outside Tunisia's capital. So taken were Administration officials with this strike against international terrorism that they initially sent congratulations to Israel, overlooking the fact that the territorial integrity of one of our closest Arab friends, Tunisia, had been violated. McFarlane told aides, "That is exactly the right kind of strike. The Israelis got the right people and minimized civilian casualties."
A few months later when it was time for the administration to confront its Libyan nemesis, the NSC staff literally took a page out of the Israeli military handbook. In January 1986 the U.S.naval forces were preparing to challenge Qaddafy's "line of death." Senior NSC aides instructed the Joint Chiefs of Staff that if challenged militarily by the Libyans they were to respond not proportionately -- as is standard operating procedure -- but with "disproportionate force." This approach was used by the Israelis in Lebanon and they had briefed senior NSC aides on its effectiveness, according to Israeli and US sources.
We now know that it was during this same period Israel, with the active assistance of the NSC staff, was crossing the divide between role model and role player. But in working together with Israel on the Iran initiative, no one at the NSC -- contrary to Bush's contention -- was being led by the nose.
To get matters straight, the vice president would be well-advised to review the testimony of the leading American actors, notably John Poindexter. In the admiral's defiant calls for secrecy, no accountability and the unfettered right to independent action you will find not the hand, but the voice of Israel.
Richard Straus is editor of the Middle East Policy Survey.