Two Israelis have been arrested in New York on charges of conspiring to sell U.S.-made missiles to Iran or Iraq, according to Israeli and U.S. officials. It is the second such case to unfold in less than a month.
The Israeli government said today that it had no connection with Zeev Reiss, a reserve Army lieutenant colonel and former professional basketball star here, and another Israeli identified by a U.S. Customs official as Gil Silva. No further information about Silva was immediately available.
Eitan Haber, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry, said that Reiss, who was arrested Monday by U.S. Customs agents at Kennedy International Airport in New York as he left a flight from Tel Aviv, had "no present or past connection" with the ministry, and that there had been no authorization for him to trade in weapons sales on Israel's behalf.
"We never heard of him," said Haber, adding that Reiss had not even been given the standard Defense Ministry letter issued to hundreds of Israeli arms dealers authorizing them to open preliminary weapons negotiations abroad but not permitting them to conclude arms deals.
Such a letter had been granted to Abraham Bar-Am, a retired Israeli Army brigadier general who was charged by the United States last month with conspiring to sell $2 billion in U.S.-made weapons to Iran. In all, 17 people, including Israelis, Americans and West Germans, were charged by federal prosecutors in New York with attempting to smuggle U.S.-made jet fighters and Israeli-made air-to-air missiles to Iran through other countries.
Reiss, who until four years ago had reportedly been a kibbutz industries representative in the United States, is accused of attempting to ship 3,819 U.S.-made, wire-guided TOW antitank missiles to Iran or Iraq, according to Israeli press reports and a U.S. Customs official.
There were conflicting reports here as to whether the weapons were destined for Iran or Iraq, although Israeli arms merchants have a long record of selling weapons to any country engaged in a war that is viewed as debilitating to an Arab regime.
The outgoing director general of the Defense Ministry, Menachem Meron, said in an interview in Maariv today that Israel had sold arms to Iran, but is not now involved in such deals.
"We did it once four years ago. At the beginning, because of questions of national security here, there were disagreements about the issue, but it was decided it was worthwhile for us to attain certain objectives. This was brought to the attention of the Americans, but we did not ask their permission," Meron said.
He added, "We sold them spare parts and not actual weapons. Israel does not sell arms to Iran, but if I'm asked if equipment like that or other types of Israeli materiel finds its way through various means to Iran, I would not swear that this is not so. But in principle, we do not sell arms to Iran."
When asked about the arrest of Bar-Am and the others last month, Meron replied, "Israel does not get involved in stupid deals of this type."
Israeli press reports said Reiss and Silva were accused of asking a $200,000 "advance" from two prospective arms buyers who, according to the reports, turned out to be undercover U.S. Customs agents.