Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres confirmed yesterday that he sent a handwritten message to Attorney General Edwin Meese III expressing interest in an Iraqi oil pipeline, but denied again that Israel was asked for or gave any security assurances for the project.
Peres, through spokesmen, has previously denied writing the letter. He acknowledged it yesterday in an interview on "This Week With David Brinkley," saying he wrote the note in the summer of 1985 because he believed that the pipeline, which never was built, would improve Israel's security and give it access to cheaper oil supplies.
The letter was sent to Meese and not diplomatic officials, Peres said, "because I was approached by people who told me the attorney general will deal with it."
Peres did not identify the "people" who told him Meese was handling the project. Speculation about Peres' role has centered on his close friendship with Bruce Rappaport, a Swiss businessman who was promoting the pipeline with the help of E. Bob Wallach, a close associate of Meese.
Peres said that Meese replied to the note, telling Peres that the matter was being handled by Robert McFarlane, then national security affairs adviser. According to sources, Peres discussed the project briefly with McFarlane, Meese and Wallach during an October 1985 visit to Washington.
Peres denied again yesterday that he had offered any assurances of security for the project, a proposed 54-mile pipeline through Jordan that would have passed near Israeli territory, or that he or his Labor Party stood to make any financial gain from it.
"We never do it; we never did it," he said. "Nobody ever approached me. I don't know what somebody was scheming behind my back."
The question of whether bribes were considered as part of the pipeline project is central to independent counsel James C. McKay's investigation of Meese. Federal law prohibits U.S. citizens, residents and companies from making payments to foreign officials, governments or political parties for business purposes and allows the attorney general to take action if he knew in advance the possibility that a crime might be committed.
According to sources familiar with the investigation, the possibility of payments to Israel and its Labor Party in return for not attacking the pipeline surfaced in a 1985 memo written to Meese by Wallach. Meese has denied any wrongdoing, saying his accusers are misconstruing "10 words" in the still-classified memo.
But Peres' contact with Meese on the project reportedly has created some discomfort among State Department officials, who are concerned that it could damage Peres politically at a sensitive time in Middle East peace efforts.
The Los Angeles Times yesterday quoted an unnamed source as saying "there's more concern about Peres than Meese" among U.S. officials.