When an Israeli Leader Said ‘No’ to America – and Didn’t Get Insulted for It

The just-released phone call between Ronald Reagan and Menachem Begin shows a wartime disagreement between allies conducted in a calm, civil and adult way - with no hint of the ‘chickenshit’ rhetoric.

Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky
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Begin and Reagan
Begin and Reagan
Seth Lipsky
Seth Lipsky

Can a prime minister of Israel say “no” to a president of America without relations between the two administrations turning into public recriminations? It’s a question right now, with all the name-calling between aides of the governments of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama. So feature the never-before-public tape recordings of Ronald Reagan’s presidency that have just turned up. They include an astonishing phone call - just made public - in which Menachem Begin parried a request from Ronald Reagan for help during the Lebanon.

I’m an abiding admirer of both Reagan and Begin. What strikes me about the call is the straightforward, civil way in which the phone calls were conducted in what can only be called a high-stakes military moment in which lives were at stake.

The recording starts with a telephone call to Begin that Reagan placed in 1983. His aim is to get Israel to delay withdrawal of the IDF from the Chouf until the Lebanese Army can get into place. His hope is to avoid a massacre of Christians. What one can hear on these long ago tapes is two countries who are fast friends nonetheless acting on their own interests — and judgments. There is no mention of “chickenshit.”

Reagan begins by telling Begin that he is making a call he didn’t want to make. But he says the situation has changed since Israel had agreed to a brief delay in pulling out of the Chouf. He reports that President Amine Gemayel had just asked Syria to quit Lebanon and was “making progress”; a Lebanese Druze plan was drafted; and “most important,” Reagan said, the Lebanese army has been performing well. It just needs “a few more days” in Beirut.

“So,” Reagan says, “here I am asking you the one thing you the one thing that you told me not to ask you, and that is, could you delay a few more days in that withdrawal until the Lebanese Army can free itself from Beirut and move into the Chouf.”

Begin doesn’t want to be the one to tell him no. He starts by saying he wants to consult his defense minister, Moshe Arens, who is just back from Beirut, and says he’ll get back to Reagan. He then points out that Israel had made clear the last time it delayed pulling out of the Chouf that it didn’t want to delay again. He reported that they were trying to get out by Rosh Hashanah. He said that if Reagan would allow it, Arens could get in touch with Reagan or the secretary of state.

“Certainly,” Reagan said. “Let me just say, Menachem, that this progress that has been made that I told you about ... could not have been made if you hadn’t done what you did. That gave us, them some time.” Reagan says he’ll wait for a call back.

Reagan didn’t wait, though. Secretary of State George Shultz got on the blower to Arens right away. When Arens comes on the line, the secretary of state says “Shultz here.” Arens says he’s just back from Lebanon where he’d gone after being asked by one of Reagan’s envoys, Richard Fairbanks, to delay the withdrawal from the Chouf.

What was being asked, Arens said, was not to halt the pullout but to stretch it out. However, he said, that “wouldn’t make any sense at all” because the Lebanese army was “not ready to enter the areas we’re ready to evacuate.” Arens says he told Fairbanks that a delay was “impossible.”

For one thing, Arens says, he lacked authority to halt the pullout absent a government decision, and “the army is already moving.” Plus the Lebanese government wouldn’t deal with Israel directly. “So we have a real difficult situation on our hands,” to which Secretary of State Shultz said: “We certainly do.” Shultz offers long reprise of recent events, only to be told by Arens: “It’s gone beyond the point of no return.”

America’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, interrupts to confirm that it’s “physically” too late to stop the Israeli withdraw, only to be told, again, “That’s correct, the Army’s on the move.” Shultz then acknowledges, “there’s no way for you to give the President an affirmative answer” and they would have to hope for the best.

What strikes me about this situation is how calm, straightforward, and adult it was — on both sides. There had been plenty of moments of public anger between Israel and America in the Reagan years (a point once made in a wonderful column by Chemi Shalev), including when Reagan used the word “holocaust” to describe Israel’s bombing of Lebanon (Begin replied, “Mr. President, I know what is a holocaust.”) All the more timely is the glimpse provided by the new tape of Reagan and Begin agreeing to disagree in the middle of a war.

Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun www.nysun.com. He was a foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of The Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.

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