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Listen to a Newly Discovered Recording of Reagan and Begin

Secret tape captures U.S.-Israel tensions surrounding first Lebanon war

by
Yair Rosenberg
November 10, 2014
President Ronald Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the White House welcoming ceremony for Begin on September 9, 1981. (YouTube)

President Ronald Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the White House welcoming ceremony for Begin on September 9, 1981. (YouTube)

It turns out Richard Nixon wasn’t the only president to secretly record his own conversations. Newly uncovered tapes made by Ronald Reagan in the White House Situation Room, obtained by author William Doyle through a Freedom of Information Act request, capture the American leader’s interactions with heads of state like Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, and Israel’s Menachem Begin. The find was first reported by the New York Post.

Doyle has made public several of the recordings, and the one with Begin is far from a casual chat. The call takes place during the aftermath of the first Lebanon war in 1983, as Israel was working to extricate itself from the Chouf in Beirut. The U.S., fearful of massacres like those that had taken place in Sabra and Shatila, repeatedly sought to delay the Israeli withdrawal, so as to ensure that the Lebanese army was ready to take control when Israel departed. Begin had already acquiesced to prior delays, and was coming under increasing political pressure to bring the troops home. Unwilling to say no to Reagan himself, Begin passed the call over to Defense Minister Moshe Arens, who explained that Israel could not accede to the president’s request.

Listen to the conversation in full:

The recording is one more example of Israeli-American tensions, particularly during wartime, that have flared throughout the two countries’ long relationship. Though Begin and Reagan had great respect for each other, both leaders often found themselves at odds, whether over Israel’s conduct in Lebanon or its June 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor in Osirak (which the U.S. voted to condemn in the United Nations Security Council). Their call regarding Lebanon is yet another reminder that Israel’s special relationship with the United States has never been without its high stakes disputes.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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