Charlie Wilson loved Israel almost as much as he loved the U.S. Marines.
It was early February 1982, and I was the legislative director of AIPAC when Charley called me about a headline-making incident at the Beirut airport that upset him.
A contingent of Marines had been sent there as part of a multinational peacekeeping force after the Israeli army drove the PLO leadership out of Lebanon. The Marines felt the IDF was testing their authority by encroaching on their lines, and on February 2, 1983, a Marine officer drew his pistol and banged it on an IDF tank to tell it to stop trying to penetrate U.S. lines.
“Tell your friends to back off,” Charlie told me. “I love Israel, but I love the U.S. Marines more.”
Charlie, who died last week at 76, is best remembered for his role in helping to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan; thanks to author George Crile and a movie starring Tom Hanks, he even got a war named for him.
He was instrumental in arming the mujahidin in Afghanistan, particularly with the Stinger missiles that brought down Soviet helicopter gunships and helped turn the tide of war.
A former Israeli diplomat reminded me last week that in a conversation with Charlie at the time, I had wondered aloud whether it was a good idea to be putting advanced shoulder-fired rockets in the hands of the Mujahidin because “these things may come back to haunt us.”
What we didn’t know at the time was that Charlie was working with the CIA and, through it, the Mossad to help arm the Mujahidin.
Charlie, however, must have had similar thoughts because when the Soviets withdrew he tried to get covert funding for the CIA to buy back the missiles.
Behind the flamboyant image of the hard-drinking, womanizing “Good Time Charlie” was a very serious and savvy lawmaker who sat on two critical appropriations subcommittees – defense and foreign operations – and worked effectively across party lines, a rarity today.
His committee assignments made him an invaluable friend during the Reagan years when relations were often strained and the administration sought to pressure or punish Israel by cutting aid or blocking arms shipments.
He was a strong and influential supporter of the Lavi, Israel’s home-made fighter jet that was opposed by the Pentagon and potential American competitors. When that project was terminated, Charlie helped craft the compromise with the Reagan administration that led to allowing Israel to spend a quarter of its aid in Israel, a provision that remains today and is critical to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge.
Charlie saw Israel as a small and vulnerable country struggling for survival and as an American ally in fighting Communist influence. Another factor involved friends he had made in both Israel and the American Jewish community.
He was an Annapolis graduate, a strong supporter of the military and an ardent Cold Warrior but a liberal on social and economic issues.
He was a frequent visitor to Israel and had an instinctive feel for the country’s political and military situation.
I saw him at Rosh Hanikra, just south of the Lebanon border, as we prepared to cross separately into the war zone on June 25, 1982, the first American civilians the IDF allowed in, we were told.
I saw things that I testified about before Congress a few weeks later, such as crates of U.S. weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and in PLO possession. For Charlie, as was to be expected, he wanted to be the first to witness the situation firsthand and be able to report back to his colleagues and marshal support.
Charlie also had close ties to Egypt through its defense minister, Mohammed Abu Ghazala, and with Pakistani strongman Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. “His friendship with Egypt and Pakistan never came at Israel’s expense,” said his friend, former Israeli Embassy congressional liaison, Zvi Rafiah.
But he was not reluctant to criticize Israel when he felt it necessary, as in the IDF-USMC confrontation in Beirut. “He never cared much for (Prime Minister Yitzhak) Shamir but kept his feelings private,” said a source who knew him well.
His friend, former Rep. Robert Mrazek (D-NY), wrote, “He was strongly pro-Israel but wasn’t afraid to publicly to criticize the Israel Defense Forces for killing Palestinian children during the intifada. Not only did he think it was wrong, but he knew it would hurt Israel in the long run.”
Charlie Wilson was a larger than life figure – not just because of his lanky 6-foot-4 frame – who was a maverick in an institution that has forgotten how to work across party lines.
He resigned his seat in 1996 following the Republican takeover of the House because, he told me at the time, “it’s not as much fun any more” and he felt Congress was becoming too polarized. It has only deteriorated since then, witness Sen. Evan Bayh’s announcement this week that he was retiring because he was sick of the “strident partisanship” of a dysfunctional institution.
A gridlocked Congress that is putting partisanship ahead of dealing with the nation’s great challenges could use a few more Charlie Wilsons and Evan Bayhs on Capitol Hill.