Media Analysis

Biden forces try to debunk story that he threatened to cut aid to Israel over settlements– 38 years ago

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Biden surrogates are seeking to puncture a story that in 1982 then-senator Joe Biden told an Israeli prime minister that the U.S. would cut aid to Israel if it continued its unending settlement project. A “canard… says Halie Soifer of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. A “false story,” says former ambassador Dan Shapiro, who adds that Biden himself has “debunked” the story.

Actually there is support for the story in a New York Times report of the encounter at the time; but what’s remarkable about this story is that Biden forces feel they need to go out of their way to dismiss an incident from nearly 40 years ago; and that the idea of conditioning aid is even controversial, when Israel has pursued the illegal project for 53 years, destroying any idea of partitioning the territory.

Biden and running mate Kamala Harris are vociferous on the issue of never conditioning our $3.8 billion a year to Israel over settlements. Despite the fact that several Democratic candidates for the presidency said they would do just that, and despite polling that Democratic voters overwhelmingly support such measures.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America raised the 1982 report on a conference call on the Jewish vote two weeks ago, when Sofier characterized it as “disinformation that is out there targeting our community.” Shapiro said, “If anybody is going to spend time obsessing about a false story from a meeting between Joe Biden and Menachem Begin close to 40 years ago, they are losing the big picture.” Biden has been close to nine Israeli Prime Ministers going back to Golda Meir in 1973, and been a devoted friend to Israel.

But then Shapiro addressed the story.

Prime Minister Begin visited the Senate in the early 1980s… Senator Biden was then on the Senate Foreign Relations Comittee and was among a group that met with him. He told him as he has told every prime minister with whom he has had very close and productive relations that he felt that the expansion of settlements in the West Bank was harmful to Israel’s future and harmful to our relationship and harmful to his ability to advocate for the U.S. assistance package that he believed so strongly in… and that there was a danger of over time opposition growing to that assistance package. Not that he was opposing it. But that was potentially one of the derivative outcomes of an expansion of settlements. And so he made that case as he has made it and every administration has made it until the Trump administration, that the expansion of settlements in the West Bank would make it harder to rsolve the conflict, harder to keep Israel Jewish and democratic, put strains on our relationship,

Nothing unusual about that postiion. There’s a story I suppose of a dramatic statement by Prime Minister Begin which he recounted I guess for his own purposes in that conversation, but Senator Biden was asked about this any number of times and has many times debunked it and on the record said I have never once threatened or conditioned or called into question my commitment to the U.S-Israel, the U.S. military assistance package to Israel. 

But news reports say the meeting was an angry one and a cut to aid was in the air. Ron Kampeas of the JTA reported a year ago.

Biden reportedly banged the table as the exchange grew heated.

Begin’s reply has become lore among his followers.

“This desk is designed for writing, not for fists,” he said, according to an account written by a confidante just after Begin’s 1992 death. “Don’t threaten us with slashing aid. Do you think that because the US lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do? We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats. ”

Biden was chastened enough that two years later he appeared at the annual conference of Herut Zionists of America (Herut was Begin’s original party) and blamed the impasse in Middle East peace on Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Biden’s pledge then: “My first order of business in the new Senate will be to educate my colleagues on the financial sacrifices Israel has made as a result of Camp David.”

A 2015 Jerusalem Post attack on Biden by Sarah Honig, its former senior political correspondent in the 1980s, credited the account by Begin’s confidante.

Back in 1982, Senator Biden (D-Delaware) threatened to cut off aid to Israel. In subsequent years he hotly denied this but Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s late right-hand man Yechiel Kadisha’i unequivocally confirmed Biden’s bullying in many conversations we held….

Biden lost it on June 22, when Begin spoke at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kadisha’i described Biden as behaving “like a meshuggner.” Biden railed against settlements and banged excitedly on his desk to accentuate his verbal admonishments.

Honig wrote that Biden was another Obama, someone who felt he had license “to tell us off when he deems us deserving of rebuke.”

The New York Times tends to confirm the report in its June 1982 story, “Mood is angry as Begin meets panel of Senate.” Bernard Gwertzman reported on a closed-door meeting of Begin with 36 senators from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the wake of the Lebanon war. The Times said the mood was unprecedented and Biden was among those “bristling with anger,” and had the “bitterest” exchange with Begin.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin left the United States today after what was described as a highly emotional confrontation on Capitol Hill with senators critical of Israel’s policies in Lebanon and in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan.

”I think it is fair to say that in my eight years in Washington I’ve never seen such an angry session with a foreign head of state,” said Senator Paul E. Tsongas, Democrat of Massachusetts.

”I think there is a lot of concern among those who are supporters of Israel that their policies are in excess,” he said, ”and support for Israel in this country is eroding.”

At the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, however, both Mr. Begin and several senators were said by participants at the meeting to have been bristling with anger…

The bitterest exchange was said to have been between Mr. Begin and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who told the Israeli leader that 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. He said Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlements policy.

Gwertzman said that only three senators had spoken in Begin’s defense (including Daniel Patrick Moynihan of NY) and that South Dakota’s Larry Pressler, a Republican, said it was the first time he’d seen such a confrontation and disagreement between senators and the Prime Minister of Israel.

Joe Biden was then 39 years old– and one thing is sure, he has since learned to swallow insults from Israel leaders.

Menachem Begin

Famously, in March 2010, Israel announced 1600 new settlement units in Jerusalem as Biden was visiting.

“I hoped the Americans would not notice, but of course, they did,” former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren relates in his book, Ally. “‘What the hell is this!’ Dan Shapiro practically lunged at me back at the hotel, pushing his BlackBerry toward my face. Dennis Ross would not even look at me.”

It became a diplomatic crisis. Some urged Biden to turn around and go home but he talked things through with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israelis expressed regret for the timing but not for the action, and Biden gave a speech praising Israel and referring to Netanyahu as “Bibi”, though he also condemned the new settlements.

Later the same year Israel did it again, announcing new settlements in Jerusalem as Netanyahu flew to the United States. President Obama said it was not “helpful,” and Netanyahu then said, No one could tell Israel not to build in Jerusalem.

Michael Oren writes that on that occasion Biden was about to meet Netanyahu in New Orleans, where the two were addressing the Jewish Federations General Assembly. Biden had given a speech in which he said supporting Israel “‘is in our own naked self-interest” and would remain so “as long as there’s a breath in me.” And: “The vice president played down the peace process, as did Netanyahu…”

Right after that Oren got word of more settlements.

“[T]he timing once again seemed designed to embarrass Biden. Tony Blinken, the vice president’s foreign policy advisor, called me and asked, ‘How could you do this to Israel’s best friend? The son of a Holocaust survivor…. Tony icily warned, ‘It’s your cdecision to build in Jerusalem, but you should know that it will have strategic implications for our relationship.”

Blinken is today part of Biden’s push with the Jewish community. As is Dan Shapiro, though Shapiro lives in Tel Aviv and works for an Israeli national security thinktank.

And of course there have never been any real consequences for Israel’s colonization of the West Bank, though it was plain as day that Israel was destroying American hopes for a two-state solution by doing so, long ago. In 1991, George H.W. Bush did hold up loan guarantees to Israel over its settlement project. But Bill Clinton then ran to Bush’s right on Israel policy in 1992 and defeated him after one term.

That is the political lesson that Biden is abiding by. As Tom Friedman said in 2013:

President Bush the first stood outside the White House one day and said I’m one lonely man standing up against the Israel lobby. What happened as a result of that… is that Republicans post Bush I, and manifested most in his son Bush 2, took a strategic decision, they will never be out pro-Israel’d again. That they believe cost them electorally a lot.

So that pulled the American spectrum to the right. and it created an arms race with the Democrats, over who could be more pro Israel.

Even the Times of Israel allows that Bush was hurt by the Israel lobby: “He made clear the cost of an American president waging a political fight against the vast coalition of pro-Israel lobbying groups.”

This is now Biden’s calculus. He feels he needs the Israel lobby on his side, meaning big pro-Israel donors, at a time when Trump is calling on pro-Israel “megadonors” Sheldon Adelson and Bernard Marcus to save his campaign with a TV ad onslaught. Leading Democrats fear that Trump will raid Democratic donors by bending over backwards for Israel. And Biden’s Democratic Party will yield to progressives on almost any other left issue, but not Israel.

So Joe Biden has to expunge any mention of his confrontation with an Israeli prime minister 38 years ago. It would be laughable if it weren’t so disturbing.

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And Biden’s Democratic Party will yield to progressives on almost any other left issue, but not Israel.

I take that yielding on other issues with a truckload of salt, or a whole convoy of trucks loaded with salt. I will believe it if he gets in and actually does some of it.

A word on the settlements: in 1958 David Ben-Gurion decided that the Book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible should serve as a template for the Israeli national psyche, and he convened a study group to promote this idea. By the time the 67 war came around the whole idea bit him in the rear end: “This marks what Anita Shapira calls the ironic reversal of the biblical territotialism unleashed by Ben-Gurion. His insistence that… Read more »

ALSO SEE: “How Many Violations of US Arms Laws are Too Many?” ~ by Franklin Lamb, Counterpunch, 3/16/12 [EXCERPTS] . . . Alarm centered on whether or not Israel had used U.S.-supplied antipersonnel cluster bombs against civilian targets during its carpet bombing West Beirut during the nearly three month siege. The House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings on this issue in July and August 1982. On July 19, 1982, the Reagan Administration announced that it… Read more »

Credible evidence BDS will require a parallel civil rights campaign, preferably modeled on the US civil rights movement, to be effective.

“Do you think that because the US lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do?”
Excuse me – did you say LENDS us money? And the answer is yes.