U.S. Middle East Policy
American Ambassador Recalls Israeli Assassination Attempt—With U.S. Weapons
Just before John Gunther Dean was to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for his confirmation hearing as American ambassador to Lebanon in 1978 he received an urgent telephone call from the office of the secretary of state. “John,” the caller said, “we have just noticed that your mother’s [maiden] name is Ashkenaczi. Does this make a serious problem for you?”
“Absolutely not,” the near legendary Dean replied, “my father was Jewish, too. I represent a secular America, so that’s all there is to it.”
In a Sept. 6 talk in Washington, DC before an audience made up mainly of retired American diplomats, Ambassador Dean, as related to the Washington Report by one of those in attendance, described his three turbulent years (1978-1981) in Beirut. There he did his courageous best to implement stated American policy goals in Lebanon: maintaining its territorial integrity, unity and sovereignty. For his pains, Israel tried but failed to assassinate him and his family.
In a period of brutal civil war amid more than a dozen political/religious factions Dean, who already had held ambassadorships in Cambodia and Denmark, traveled from one end of the country to the other, calling personally on the leaders of every group. Israel, meanwhile, maintained a rump state in southern Lebanon under Lebanese mercenary Maj. Saad Haddad while encouraging unrealistic dreams of a small Christian “Maronistan” state. As U.S. ambassador, John Gunther Dean, renowned for his physical and moral courage, opposed Israeli machinations, arguing that close ties to Israel would harm Christian interests in the long run.
Ambassador Dean, who does not speak Arabic, conducted his relations with Lebanese officials in French, then the second language of educated Lebanese. He believed, moreover, that he could not properly operate in the country without maintaining close relations with France and the French Embassy. In a perhaps uniquely rare role for any U.S. ambassador, while serving in Lebanon Dean had co-signing authority with President Elias Sarkis on Lebanon’s hundreds of millions of dollars deposited in Swiss banks.
John Gunther Dean sought and obtained authorization to deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) if it was deemed to be in America’s “national security interests.” When an “interlocutor” in Washington wondered if the Palestinians could help release American diplomatic hostages being held in Tehran, Dean sought—and received—Palestinian help. PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his aide Abu Jihad themselves went to Tehran in 1979 and secured the release of 13 Americans. Never, Dean noted, did the two receive any thanks from Washington for their efforts.
Anyone who gets between the U.S. president and the prime minister of Israel “finds himself in trouble.”
Ambassador Dean’s diligence in knowing everybody paid off in an astonishing incident when the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Lebanon was shot. As the intermediary in transferring the ambassador to the American University of Beirut (AUB) Hospital for treatment, John Dean reached the secretary to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, as well as Yasser Arafat, who was able to stop the firing on the hospital occasioned by the Saudi ambassador’s presence there.
In a prescient reference to his role in Lebanon, Dean reportedly remarked that anyone who gets between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel “finds himself in trouble.”
An amusing anecdote: Riding in his armored limousine in Beirut with ardently pro-Israel Congressman Steve Solarz, a bullet hit the car. “What’s that?” Solarz asked. “Just a bullet,” Dean replied, “but don’t worry. We are armored.” Solarz insisted on returning to the American Embassy, where he cabled home, “Arafat shot at me!”
To stress his support for the sovereignty of Lebanon Dean always cabled protests to Tel Aviv and the State Department in Washington whenever Israeli planes intruded—as they frequently did—into Lebanese airspace. These reminders irritated U.S. Ambassador to Israel Sam Lewis, with whom Dean preserved cordial relations but who suffered to a notable degree from what the U.S. Foreign Service calls “localitis” (not Ambassador Dean’s term). Other irritants flowed from Dean’s urging Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel to stop seeing Israeli Mossad officers.
Dean’s staunchly courageous defense of Lebanese (and American) interests came to a head in the early evening of Aug. 27, 1980, when, according to all the evidence, Mossad tried but failed to assassinate Dean, his wife (whose French family had old business connections in Lebanon) and their daughter. The long-rumored attempted murder of Dean by Mossad, infamously more noted for its prowess at assassinations than for its abilities as an intelligence agency, was publicly confirmed for the first time in Dean’s Washington talk.
En route from his residence in Lebanon’s hills to the Beirut residence of the AUB president, Dean’s limousine and convoy took 21 rifle bullets. The automobile bearing the ambassador and Mrs. Dean was also struck by two light anti-tank weapons. The shot-out tires on the Deans’ bulletproof car automatically reinflated. The second car, however, carrying their daughter and her fiancé, did not have bulletproof tires and was momentarily stranded. The security guards in the convoy’s third car pushed the daughter and her fiancé into the Deans’ vehicle, and they sped away. Incredibly, none of the ambassador’s party or security guards were seriously wounded. Some shots struck where Dean was sitting, but bulletproof plastic windows saved his life.
Picked up by Lebanese security, the anti-tank canisters had made-in-America markings. After unanswered telegrams to the State Department and all but silent responses to his telephone inquiries, Dean eventually learned that the anti-tank weapons were sold and shipped to Israel in 1974. Dean apparently mused to himself on the irony of an American ambassador being subjected to an Israeli assassination attempt with American weapons supplied to Israel for defense.
The Facts Speak
The ambassador did not explicitly accuse Israel of trying to assassinate him, but let the facts as he related them speak for themselves. But Washington’s acute unease in responding to his inquiries testifies to the deadening influence of the Israel lobby on American diplomacy.
On the assassination of Arafat’s personal assistant, Abu Hassan, in early 1979, Ambassador Dean was told by the Lebanese intelligence service that three Mossad officers, bearing Belgian and Australian passports, had come to Beirut masquerading as tourists for the purpose of killing Abu Hassan, whose greatest “drawback,” in Dean’s opinion, was that he was close to the Americans.
While Ambassador Dean did not commend himself to Israel, he very much gained the respect and affection of Lebanon which, on his departure form Beirut, awarded him its highest decoration. And out of the turmoil of Lebanon he also kept the confidence of the United States, which subsequently honored him with two additional ambassadorships, in Thailand and India.
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