Sec. of State Antony Blinken traveled to Israel over the weekend to urge Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu to allow “humanitarian pauses” in the bombing and ground campaign against Gaza that has now killed > 10,000 people there Netanyahu publicly rebuffed that appeal. Today’s newspapers contain some somewhat anguished accounts about the White House’s “frustration” over Netanyahu’s rebuff.
For example, in the Washington Post, Yasmeen Abutaleb wrote,
U.S. officials had hoped there could eventually be regular bombing pauses so that humanitarian and aid workers could safely operate in Gaza, according to a U.S. official familiar with the discussions. But securing such an arrangement seemed further out of reach after Blinken’s visit…
Pres. Biden might want to take a lesson from his predecessor of 41 years ago, Ronald Reagan?
In June 1982, a previous Israeli PM from the Likud Party, Menachem Begin, sent his military deep into Lebanon and up to Beirut in an attempt to “eliminate” the PLO militias who had operated there for 12 years. By early August the Israelis were encircling the PLO’s last strongholds in West Beirut and bombing the heck out of that portion of the city, which included several large Palestinian refugee camps. Very disturbing images of that destruction were starting to fill the U.S. media…
Michael Deaver was Reagan’s deputy chief of staff at the time. In his 2001 memoir, A Different Drummer, he wrote about his misgivings over Israel’s attacks grew as the weeks progressed:
I didn’t always sit in on policy briefings, but for weeks I sat there listening as the National Security Council aides kept telling Reagan that Israel could actually win if Sharon’s tanks and infantry could clean out the terrorists once and for all. At the same time, Israel would drive Syria’s forces back over its borders, too. To me, this strategy risked a Middle East nightmare of biblical proportions. World War III scenarios were actually taken seriously. Was it worth the risk? Could we continue to denounce Israel by day and encourage it by night, even as innocent Lebanese casualties mounted?
He noted that one day, as the National Security Council was holding its customary 9:30 am meeting with the president. “I sat in my office in solitude, choosing not to attend the session. For the past week, I had seen pictures of the bodies piling up in Lebanon, and now my mind couldn’t escape those images of the carnage. Finally, I rose and walked through my door into the Oval Office.”
Reagan was sitting there alone. Deaver recalled what happened next:
“Mr. President, I have to leave,”I said.
“Mike, what are you talking about?” he said sharply.
“I can’t be part of this any more—the bombings, the killing of children.”
He listened intently, but remained silent.
“You’re the one person who can stop it,” I continued. “All you have to do is tell Begin you want it stopped.”
We looked at each other for a few moments. Reagan stared down at his lap. I felt that he was seeing the same images that were haunting me. We didn’t need to say anything. After all these years together, his body language and facial expression told me we were on common ground. Reagan picked up the phone and asked his secretary to get Menachem Begin on the phone immediately.
Reagan was completely committed to Israel, but he and Begin had not particularly hit it off when they met face-to-face, especially after Begin went straight from the White House to Capitol Hill to lobby for more money for the Jewish state after telling the president that he would accept the foreign aid package we had offered.
When the call came through from Israel, the president quickly picked up the phone. He told the prime minister, in very frank terms, that the shelling had to stop and that Israel was in danger of losing the moral support of the American people.
Reagan listened for a moment, before ending the conversation by saying, “It’s gone too far. You must stop it.”
Twenty minutes later, Shultz joined us, and Begin called back to say that he’d ordered [Defense Minister] Sharon to stop the bombings. There would be no more planes over Beirut tonight.
Reagan hung up the phone and stood up. “I didn’t know I had that kind of power,” he said with a wink and a smile.
In today’s White House, Pres. Biden certainly also has “that kind of power”… if he should choose to use it.
In Yasmeen Abutaleb’s piece in today’s WaPo, she quotes national-security expert Bruce Riedel as saying, “Of course the United States has leverage — we provide Israel with $4 billion a year in grant aid…But every American administration, going back to the 1970s, has been loath to use that leverage because it would be highly unpopular.”
Abutaleb also quotes an anonymous “person familiar with the administration’s thinking”, most likely an administration insider, as telling her:
“They’re watching a train wreck, and they can’t do anything about it, and the trains are speeding up… The train wreck is in Gaza, but the explosion is in the region. They know that even if they were to do something, which is to condition aid to Israel, it won’t actually stop the Israelis from what they’re doing.”
Time to channel Ronald Reagan, maybe?
(By the way, this UPI account from late August 1982 noted that Reagan’s crucial phone call to Begin had taken place on August 12. The UPI journo quoted Begin as saying that in the call Reagan described Israel’s assault on West Beirut as a “holocaust”—a term that Begin said he had found deeply offensive.)