Rare recording of Reagan-Begin conversation released


In the February 1982 phone call, the U.S. president tries unsuccessfully to persuade Israel’s prime minister to delay a planned troop withdrawal in Lebanon.

By Chemi Shalev
Ronald Reagan and Menachem Begin.

Ronald Reagan (left) and Menachem Begin

A 1983 recording of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan attempting to persuade then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to delay a withdrawal of Israeli troops from a sector in Lebanon is among five previously unknown recordings of conversations with world leaders released late last week.

The recordings of telephone calls made from the White House Situation Room were released by author William Doyle, who received them following a Freedom of Information Act request he made in 1996. They were published exclusively by the New York Post.

“Until now, taping was thought to have stopped in the Nixon era. I discovered that was not the case,” Doyle told the Post.

Steve Branch, an audiovisual archivist at the Reagan Presidential Library in California, said the tapes are the first audio recordings of White House Situation Room telephone conversations the library has released to date.

During the call, Begin balks at Reagan’s request to delay an Israeli tactical withdrawal from certain positions in the Chouf mountains in Lebanon until Lebanese forces could replace them in February 1983.

The Chouf district, south-east of the Lebanese capital Beirut, is the traditional home of Lebanon’s Druze community. It was occupied by Israeli troops during the First Lebanon War that begin in June 1982.

It depicts Begin as unable to say no to the U.S. president, preferring to let his defense minister, Ariel Sharon, tell the Americans that the pullout was going ahead.

“It’s a call that I have resisted making and did not want to make and I know what has been taking place there,” Reagan says to Begin. “And the only reason I am making this call now is because the situation has changed in the five days since you willingly agreed to delay and we all had hoped that it’s all we had to ask of you. But there’s been great progress along some lines there…”

“But physically, they need several more days before they can move into the Chouf. And I’m sure you are aware of the massacre that has taken place there — the men, women and children in that Christian village that were massacred. And I’m afraid of the instigation of the Syrians, we know enough, as I’m sure you know, that the Syrians are very much involved in all of this.

“And so, here I am now asking you the one thing 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 replies: “Ron, I just spoke to the [Lebanese] foreign minister who has held Jerusalem and now he is also the defense minister. He came back from Lebanon. I know that the evacuation had to start tonight …

“I will get in touch with our defense minister . . . any minute . . . and then I’ll get in touch with you. Because what I want to say now is that the two previous delays which we accepted only because you asked us to do so, that we knew it will create resentment . . . as a result of that experience I really express the hope . . . that we will not have to delay again.”

Doyle describes the conversation as “an astonishing recording” that “captures a moment in the death of Menachem Begin’s political career.

“He was deeply depressed over the disastrous war in Lebanon and by the death the previous year of his beloved wife. He was also plagued with heart trouble and other health problems. Months later he decided to resign; that October he left office a broken man, and after that rarely left his house until the day he died. On the tape, you can hear the pathos of the moment in Begin’s voice.”

Among the other recordings released were Reagan discussing the release of Western hostages in the Middle East with Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and a conversation with Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s current president, who Reagan kept waiting for over 13 minutes while he finished up a horseback ride at his California ranch.

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