WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 (JTA) – As an adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres in the mid-1980s, Al Schwimmer traveled to the United States often and met with former Presidents Reagan and Bush.
He served as an intermediary between the United States and Iran in the arms-for-hostages scandal.
It never seemed to matter that he was a U.S. felon, convicted for his role in smuggling airplanes from the United States to Israel as it fought its War of Independence in 1948.
Now, a half-century after his conviction, Schwimmer has been exonerated, one of the many pardons granted by President Clinton on his last days in office.
It was a pardon he never asked for and is less than enthusiastic about.
“I appreciate it,” said the 83-year-old Schwimmer, who lives in Israel and holds dual American and Israeli citizenships.
“It is not the most important thing for me in my life,” he told JTA in a telephone interview from his Tel Aviv home.
Schwimmer, the founder and former CEO of Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd., was convicted in 1950 of violating the United States Neutrality Act for his role in aiding Israel.
With a sense of pride and modesty, Schwimmer tells the story of how he deliberately broke the law to help create the Jewish state:
A veteran of World War II originally from Connecticut, Schwimmer – known then as Adolph – joined TWA after the war as a flight engineer and was recruited through friends to help bring airplanes to the Middle East to aid the Jews in their war for independence.
He set up dummy airline companies that were supposed to be flying charter flights, and purchased airplanes from the United States, which was selling surplus planes no longer needed after the war.
In all, Schwimmer and his crew brought 30 planes to Israel, flying them through either Italy or South America and to Czechoslovakia, from where the planes were sent to the Middle East.
They also recruited men, mostly World War II veterans, to go to the Middle East and fight.
For most of that time, the government was on Schwimmer’s tail.
“My philosophy was that we couldn’t outsmart them, but if we moved fast, we’d be ahead of them all the time,” he said.
He said the operation functioned on both U.S. coasts, and by May of 1948, he was staying at a different place each night to avoid the authorities.
One night, as he remembers it, the police arrived at the hotel where he was staying in New York City.
One of his colleagues called up to Schwimmer’s 20th floor room to warn him. The agents took the elevator up to his room as Schwimmer raced down 20 flights of steps.
Schwimmer was on the next illegal plane bound for Czechoslovakia.
Schwimmer went to Israel, and served in its fledgling air force.
After the War of Independence had been won, Schwimmer came back to the United States to face the music.
“I decided I didn’t want to be a fugitive the rest of my life,” Schwimmer said.
He pleaded not guilty but was convicted in 1950 – along with his colleagues – and received a $10,000 fine.
The fine, and his court costs, were paid for by the Jewish Agency for Israel, he said.
Schwimmer returned to Israel and founded Bedek, the precursor to Israel Aircraft. After nearly 25 years at the helm of the military and commercial airplane manufacturer, Schwimmer retired.
But that did not end his life in the spotlight.
For one shekel a year, Schwimmer joined Peres’ government in the mid-1980s as a special adviser to the prime minister for technology and industry.
He would once again find himself in the midst of controversy.
On his role in the Iran/Contra affair, Schwimmer would not reminisce. He would say very little about the role he played.
“We used the connections we had, which were perhaps better than the United States had, to try to get the hostages out,” he said, but would not elaborate.
According to the 1993 Independent Counsel report on the Iran/Contra Affair, Schwimmer played a key role as an Israeli intermediary between the United States and Iran in the weapons-for-hostages plan.
The Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran, using Israel as an intermediary, in an effort to secure the release of American hostages being held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.
Some of the proceeds from the sale of weapons to Iran was diverted to the contras, who were waging war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
According to the report, Schwimmer introduced Robert McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser, to Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian businessman who would lay the Iranian’s demands on the table.
He also helped secure El Al planes to transport the weapons from Israel to a mediating country.
In late 1985, Schwimmer was relieved of his role as a go-between with Ghorbanifar, the report said.
Lt. Col. Oliver North, an assistant at the National Security Council, would later gain national attention for his role in the affair – his conviction was later overturned – took over as a key player dealing with the Israeli connection.
Schwimmer was never charged with any crime, in the United States or Israel, for his role in the controversial program.
In his advisory role for the Israeli government, Schwimmer met with heads of state, including two presidents. If any background check ever showed his conviction, that information never came back to him.
“I’m sure they knew who I was,” he said.
So from Schwimmer’s perspective, he never needed a pardon.
In fact, even now, he says, he isn’t certain he has been pardoned. No official information has reached his Tel Aviv home – and Schwimmer is not waiting by the mailbox.
Because he lives in Israel, he said, the only benefits he sees would be to vote in U.S. elections.
Schwimmer never applied for the pardon.
“It’s a complicated process. You’ve got to say, ‘I recognize I was guilty and I did wrong.’ ” he said.
“I wasn’t ready to say all that. I didn’t feel that I had done wrong. I did what I did for idealistic reasons.”
One of his close friends, Hank Greenspun, was convicted of similar charges at the same time. Greenspun, who later became publisher of the Las Vegas Sun, received a pardon from President Kennedy in 1961.
After years of asking him to apply for his own pardon, Greenspun’s son, Brian, the Sun’s current president and editor, told Schwimmer he was going to apply for a pardon on Schwimmer’s behalf.
He said, ‘I’m not asking you, I’m informing you that I have put you in for a pardon,’ ” Schwimmer said.
Greenspun reportedly asked Clinton over Thanksgiving weekend for Schwimmer’s pardon. Greenspun was unavailable for comment.
Now that he has his pardon, little has changed for the octogenarian. He said Greenspun is encouraging him to write his life story.
“I’m still alive, so I can’t decide whether I’d like my life story to be written yet,” he said. “Besides, I don’t think it would be interesting anyway.”