In 1982, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin visited Washington, DC. Israel had invaded Lebanon, where various Palestinian factions were then headquartered, and the world was watching bloodshed in the Middle East.
Normally, Israeli prime ministers can expect a warm greeting when they visit the United States. As with Israel’s war in Gaza now, though, some American politicians were angry at the belligerence of Israel’s actions and wanted de-escalation.
Some reports at the time (and since) suggested that one of the angry doves in 1982 was Senator Joseph Biden. The truth seems to be more complicated.
Begin met with Biden, and vague reports described some sort of angry exchange. Begin’s recollections of that meeting were reported at the time in a mainstream Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Aharonot. Some of the details of what Begin recalls Biden telling him are genuinely shocking, but they seem to now be largely forgotten in Israel — especially a hypothetical Biden floated about the United States bombing cities in Canada. “If attacks were launched from Canada into the US,” Biden remarked, “everyone here would have said, ‘Attack all the cities of Canada, and we don’t care if all the civilians get killed.’”
As far as I can tell, these details have never been reported in the English-language press — until now.
When Biden Clashed With Begin
Writing in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks after the 2020 presidential election, presidential historian Tevi Troy recounts the meeting between Biden and Begin. Troy doesn’t quote Biden’s side of the conversation, although he vaguely talks about the future president “lectur[ing] the 68-year-old Begin about the settlements” Israel was building in occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank and warning Begin that Israel might be in danger of losing support in the United States. Instead of giving us any real details about Senator Biden’s perspective, he talks a lot about the theatrics of the meeting — fingers jabbed, fists pounded on the table — and quotes Begin taking umbrage at the senator challenging him in any way. “I am not,” Begin told Biden, “a Jew with trembling knees.”
Without quoting any of his specific comments, Troy says that Biden warned Begin that “eroding support for Israel” might endanger future US aid. Begin seems to have taken this as a threat to cut off aid if Israeli policy didn’t change, and Troy quotes him railing that Israel would “stand by” its “principles . . . with or without your aid.”
Honestly, though, everything we know about the way Senator Biden positioned himself on the issue at the time makes it more likely that he was speaking as a supporter of US aid worried that he and his friends wouldn’t be able to deliver it in the future. But what exactly was his concern?
A more helpful description that appeared at the time in the Sydney Morning Herald makes Biden’s position clearer. Other senators, according to the report in the Herald, were angry about Israeli belligerence in Lebanon. It’s not hard to see why. Many thousands of civilians were killed in Lebanon by the time that war was over. The specific Israeli attack that those other senators were confronting Begin about had, even according to the Israeli army, killed 460 to 470 civilians and made another twenty thousand homeless. Palestinian sources had those numbers at ten thousand civilians dead and another sixty thousand made homeless.
Senator Biden, though, was splitting the difference between Begin and the angry doves. Biden “said he was not critical of the Lebanon operation, but felt that Israel had to halt the policy of establishing new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.” Biden “said Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlement policy.”
Predictably, this argument fell on deaf ears. The ultraconservative prime minister “rejected the appeals, saying that Jews had a right to settle in the area he called Judea and Samaria.” And ultimately the pushback from Biden and the other senators was little more than annoyance. “Despite the criticisms,” the Herald reported, “Mr. Begin left Washington pleased at having his basic approach to the Lebanese crisis endorsed by Mr. Reagan.”
Hypothetically, What If We Had to Kill All the Canadians?
But what exactly did Senator Biden say about the Lebanese crisis? The report in the Sydney Morning Herald doesn’t say. It doesn’t look like either Biden or Begin described that part of the conversation in any sort of detail to any reporters for the English-language press at the time. Maybe nobody cared much about the opinions of a senator from Delaware.
Begin did recount the conversation in considerable detail, though, to Yedioth Aharonot. One comment of Biden’s in particular seems to have pleased Begin (the following translation comes from consultation with several Hebrew speakers):
Biden’s comments were offensive, Begin said. Suddenly he [Biden] said: “What did you do in Lebanon? You annihilated what you annihilated.”
I was certain, recounted Begin, that this was a continuation of his attack against us, but Biden continued: “It was great! It had to be done! If attacks were launched from Canada into the United States, everyone here would have said, ‘Attack all the cities of Canada, and we don’t care if all the civilians get killed.’”
If so, Begin told us, I wondered what all the shouting was about. It turned out Biden wasn’t shouting about the operation in Lebanon at all, he was angry about what Israel was doing in Judea and Samaria . . .
As a matter of fact, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon came after a long cease-fire during which very few attacks on Israeli targets were launched from Lebanon, but Israel frequently hit Palestinian targets there, killing hundreds of people. The immediate justification for the invasion was an assassination attempt against Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov rather than some sort of massive terrorist attack.
These inconvenient details notwithstanding, Senator Biden’s moral calculus seemed clear enough. So are the disturbing parallels to his support as president for Israel’s indiscriminately murderous bombing campaign in Gaza. Whatever objections Biden might have had to Begin’s settlement policy in the West Bank, he clearly considered Israel, like the United States, to be a special nation with a right to spill oceans of blood in conflicts with lesser adversaries.
I do wonder, though, what Canadian officials think about the president of the United States saying that any hypothetical attacks from terrorist groups operating in Canada would justify what sounds like an outright genocidal American response. He thought, remember, that it would be a “phenomenal” thing in such a scenario if the United States attacked “all” the cities in Canada, even if “all” the civilians there died. If Biden really said that, it suggests that not only does he consider Lebanese and Palestinian life to be very cheap — a depressing fact, but not a particularly surprising one — but that Canadian lives are in the same category.
Someone should ask President Biden about these comments now. And while they’re at it, they should see if they can get a comment from Justin Trudeau.