By Sean Malloy
Can Ari Ben-Menashe be believed? Just when you begin to think he can't, the powers that be become very nervous at the prospect of revealing evidence that would confirm or contradict his stories.
His claim that the Israeli government had paid "an Australian political party" $8.5 million to turn a blind eye to arms shipments to Iran channelled through Western Australia in 1987 was firmly denied by all possible candidates. But if Ben-Menashe is simply a liar or a madman, why is the Australian government so anxious to get him out of the country?
In December, his Australian visitor's visa (due to expire in April) was cancelled after his allegations of Australian involvement in arms deals were publicised.
Ben-Menashe appealed. Last month, the Department of Immigration backed down backed down rather than obey a Federal Court order to disclose the information justifying the cancellation.
He had earlier applied for refugee status and been turned down.
Ben-Menashe, currently residing in Sydney, agreed to be interviewed by Green Left.
An Israeli military intelligence officer from 1977, Ben-Menashe says he was sacked in 1987 for leaking the Iran-contra story on behalf of "half" of the Israeli government.
Despite that blot on his record, he was employed later that year (by the same "half" of the government) as an intelligence consultant to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a position he held until 1989.
In 1989 he was arrested in the United States for smuggling Lockheed C-130 transport planes to Iran.
"I was on a vacation", says Ben-Menashe. "It was the only time I went to the United States without a diplomatic passport. I was in Los Angeles for a few days on my way to Sydney for two weeks; I never made it to Sydney."
Although acquitted, Ben-Menashe did not return to his job. His successful defence was that the arms deals had been approved by the Israeli and US governments.
"They wouldn't let me back in Israel because I defended myself on trial, and they didn't like what I had to say in court.
"While I was being held I was approached to plead guilty and go away. I didn't agree. In my mind I had no alternative but to speak up, to talk.
"On November 28, 1990, I was acquitted of all charges on the basis that I did not deny anything ... we proved it [the arms deal] was authorised at the political level, meaning the vice-president of the minister of Israel."
In an interview on the SBS television program Dateline, aired last year, Ben-Menashe said that US armaments bound for Iran were shipped through Fremantle between March and June 1987.
He claimed that Australian politicians and security people knew of the shipments and that a donation of $8.5 million dollars was made by the Israeli government to an Australian political party.
He told Green Left that "the Australian government does not really have a main role in these arms deals, but some arms were parked here or facilitated in Western Australia".
Ben-Menashe also backs other claims about Israeli and US arms dealing, particularly with Iran.
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the new government inherited a US$17 billion dollar arsenal that had been purchased by the shah from the United States. The Iranian government needed spare parts for the US equipment. In September 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, setting off the first gulf war. This multiplied Iran's need for arms.
Israel resumed arms trading with Iran in the early '80s, seeing the greatest threat to itself in an Iraq occupying the oilfields of southern Iran.
Washington's concerns were different. In November 1979, 52 US embassy employees were taken hostage by the Iranians, and held throughout 1980 — a US presidential election year. President Jimmy Carter wanted US allies to boycott arms deals with Iran while negotiations continued over the hostages.
In the negotiations, Carter promised to release some of the weapons ordered from the US by the shah in exchange for the release of hostages.
Ben-Menashe backs a persistent claim now being investigated by a Congressional committee — to which he testified in December — that the Israelis, in collaboration with the Reagan-Bush election campaign, undermined Carter's position by selling US arms and spare parts through Israel to Iran.
In exchange, the Iranians agreed to release the hostages after the US presidential elections in 1980. The hostage crisis was prolonged by the Reagan-Bush campaign in order to discredit the Carter administration. (The hostages were released as soon as Reagan was inaugurated.)
Appearing less plausible are Ben-Menashe's claims that Israel also conducted arms deals with revolutionaries in Nicaragua and El Salvador — although it is not totally excluded that the Israelis might do so for their own reasons (and profits) if they thought it could be concealed from Washington.
"Central America is a different story", says Ben-Menashe. "The relationship with the right wing governments in the '70s was quite strong, but Israel also kept a covert relationship with the Sandinistas and the FMLN in El Salvador.
"During the '80s an unofficial group was selling arms to the contras. to all kinds of right-wing groups, but there was an intelligence relationship with the Sandinistas and there were arms brokered by the Israelis from Yugoslavia and Poland to the Sandinistas."
Israeli-South African cooperation is an open secret, but Ben-Menashe adds some details. "There was a very close relationship with South Africa, there still is, but in 1988 there was a break, not a formal, open break but there was a break, between the two countries over the fact that the South Africans, with the blessing of Americans, were supplying the Iraqis with weapons, together with the Chileans. In early '89 the South Africans pulled out of this deal, so the relationship with Israel came back together.
"There was also a nuclear relationship between Israel and South Africa from the early '70s. They would provide the money and the metals and Israel the technology."
Information supplied by Ben-Menashe was used in a controversial book, The Samson Option: Israel, America and the Bomb, written by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
The book focusses on Israel's development of nuclear weapons, the theft of US military data used to aim nuclear missiles and the revelations of Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, who is currently serving an 18-year solitary confinement sentence in Israel for revealing Israel's nuclear capability.
The Samson Option also touches on the role of Robert Maxwell in the kidnapping of Mordechai Vanunu after Vanunu approached the London Daily Mirror about his story.
After Maxwell's death last November, Seymour Hersh and Ben-Menashe told more about Israel's relationship with Maxwell and the foreign editor of the Daily Mirror, Nick Davies.
"Davies was a full-blown Israeli agent who was running arms", Ben-Menashe told Green Left. "He was involved in the arms sales to Iran.
"Maxwell was very close to the Israeli prime minister's office. His company was facilitating the sale of arms through their relationship with the east bloc."
Ben-Menashe has just finished writing his own book. "It basically covers 10 years of history about the relationship between the United States and Israel and other Middle East countries", he says.
Media scepticism about Ben-Menashe's assertions speculates that he is picking up on established facts, telling half truths or guessing. In response, Ben-Menashe points to recent editions of the Israeli publication Davar which ran articles supporting his statements.
"There are two sides to this story and I'm hoping that the truth does come out", he said. And the question remains: why is the federal government so anxious to get him out of the country?