With the Administration's requests for continued aid to the Salvadoran army and Nicaragua's contras bottled up in Congress, an intriguing question arises: Could the U.S. funnel arms to Central America through Israel? U.S. officials refused to address the question directly last week, but they conceded that it had the merit Of being logical. Israel has looked on Central America with a kind eye ever since Nicaragua allowed Jewish freedom fighters to ship arms into Israel under the Nicaraguan flag in the late 1940s. In return, Jerusalem has long supplied weapons to several Central American countries, including Guatemala and Honduras. Total sales this year are expected to reach $22 million.
The legal answer to whether the U.S. could, in effect, launder military equipment through Israel is no. The Foreign Military Sales Act of 1968 and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 both prohibit the transfer of arms and materiel from the recipient to a third country unless the President consents and Congress is notified. In reality, nothing could stop Israel from reaching an informal agreement with Administration officials to supplement aid to El Salvador and the contras. The Israelis also could increase arms shipments without consulting Washington, knowing full well that such a move would be welcomed by the White House and perhaps be rewarded in some way in the future.
Nothing would be wrong, of course, with Israel offering its own aid to El Salvador or the contras, even at U.S. request. Washington and Jerusalem were full of rumors last week that the subject would come up when David Kimche, director general of the Israeli foreign ministry and a former deputy chief of the Mossad, traveled to Washington. After meeting with State Department officials, however, Kimche denied that Israel had any intention of selling arms to U.S. clients in the isthmus. He said that discussions had been held on expanding technological aid to the region, like Israel's ongoing program to control pests in El Salvador's cotton crop. "I do not see ourselves as proxies," he said. "I see us as an independent entity."
Yet El Salvador has made no secret of its desire for military assistance from Israel. Last month the Salvadoran government conspicuously moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, becoming only the second nation in the world officially to recognize the holy city as Israel's capital (the other is Costa Rica). A few days later, El Salvador's interim President, Alvaro Magaña, said that he looked forward to closer cooperation with Israel.
Despite the denials, the contras operating out of Honduras and Costa Rica are most likely already receiving Israeli arms, albeit indirectly and in small doses. Israel's motive in helping the contras would not be just to curry favor with the U.S. but to strike a blow against the Palestine Liberation Organization, which helped train the Sandinistas before they overthrew the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. During a 1980 visit to Managua, P.L.O. Chairman Yasser Arafat declared to the Sandinistas that "the links between us are not new . . . Your enemies are our enemies."