Secret Begin-Reagan tapes highlight tense ties over Lebanon
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Secret Begin-Reagan tapes highlight tense ties over Lebanon

Historian uncovers recordings from 1983 of PM declining a US request to delay an Israeli troop withdrawal

US president Ronald Reagan, left, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, 1981. (photo credit: AP)
US president Ronald Reagan, left, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, 1981. (photo credit: AP)

A newly uncovered recording from 1983 between then US president Ronald Reagan and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin exposes the fraught relationship between the two leaders during the First Lebanon War.

The recordings, which were shared with the New York Post on Sunday, reveal a phone conversation between Reagan and Begin in which Reagan implored the prime minister to further delay an Israeli withdrawal of troops from the central Lebanese district of Chouf till after Rosh Hashanah.

Reagan believed the delay was necessary in order to give Lebanese forces enough time to replace the Israeli presence and prevent further chaos.

“It’s a call that I have resisted making and did not want to make…[but] 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,” Reagan said with his trademark candor.

“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,” concluded the American president.

Begin, who had clashed heavily with Reagan after the president criticized Israeli tactics throughout the conflict, avoided giving a direct response, instead turning to defense minister Moshe Arens to convey the message that Israel would not honor his request.

IDF vehicles drive over the Awali bridge as they retreat from Lebanon on February 16, 1985. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
IDF vehicles drive over the Awali bridge as they retreat from Lebanon on February 16, 1985. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“Ron, I just spoke to the foreign minister…in Jerusalem and now with also the defense minister who came back from Lebanon. I know that the evacuation had to start tonight,” Begin said.

“I will get in touch with our defense minister any minute when we finish, 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, 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,” Begin said.

Although Israel maintained a security presence in southern Lebanon until the year 2000, the IDF would later begin pulling out of Chouf on September 3, 1983 — five days before the Jewish new year.

The withdrawal effectively removed a buffer zone between Druze and Christian militias in the region and triggered the “Mountain War;” a brutal phase of the Lebanese civil war in which an estimated 2,000 people died in fierce fighting between a bevy of opposing forces.

A month later, jihadist suicide bombers detonated two truck bombs in front of buildings housing international peacekeeping forces in Beirut, killing 241 American service personnel and 58 French paratroopers. The attack, which constituted the largest loss of American military personnel in a single assault since the Vietnam War, was the major impetus that caused the US to unceremoniously leave Lebanon early the following year.

The explosion at the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. (photo credit: US Marines, Wikimedia Commons)
The explosion at the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. (photo credit: US Marines, Wikimedia Commons)

The tapes were uncovered last week by author William Doyle after he filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 1996.

Doyle, who has written extensively on American history, expressed surprise that Reagan had secretly recorded conversations with foreign leaders.

“Until now, taping was thought to have stopped in the Nixon era. I discovered that was not the case,” Doyle said in an interview with the New York Post.

The tapes also include recorded conversations with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Pakistani president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and Syrian president Hafez Assad, the father of the current president.

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