1982: Israeli Invasion of Lebanon

In public, Joe Biden tried to claim neutrality on the Israeli military campaign. In private, he was more enthusiastic about it than the Israeli prime minister.

A woman and her children sit amongst the rubble of her destroyed home during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon named "Operation Peace for the Galilee" in the Lebanese port city of Sidon, Lebanon, in June, 1982. (Photo by Bryn Colton/Getty Images)
A woman and her children sit among the rubble of her destroyed home in the port city of Sidon, Lebanon, in June 1982, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Photo: Bryn Colton/Getty Images

In public, Joe Biden was neither a public cheerleader for nor an opponent of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. But in a private meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in June 1982, Biden appeared to support the brutality of the invasion even more than the Israeli government. As Biden’s colleagues “grilled” Begin over Israel’s disproportionate use of force, including by targeting civilians with cluster bomb munitions, Begin said Biden “rose and delivered a very impassioned speech” defending the invasion. Begin said he was shocked at how passionately Biden supported Israel’s invasion when Biden “said he would go even further than Israel, adding that he’d forcefully fend off anyone who sought to invade his country, even if that meant killing women or children.” Begin said, “I disassociated myself from these remarks,” adding: “I said to him: No, sir; attention must be paid. According to our values, it is forbidden to hurt women and children, even in war. Sometimes there are casualties among the civilian population as well. But it is forbidden to aspire to this. This is a yardstick of human civilization, not to hurt civilians.” The comments were striking from Begin, who had been notorious as a leader of the Irgun, a militant group that carried out some of the worst acts of ethnic cleansing accompanying the creation of the state of Israel, including the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre. The details of his exchange with Biden about Lebanon did not receive attention in the U.S. press. Instead, the New York Times focused on what it termed the “bitterest exchange” between Biden and Begin over the issue of Israeli settlements, which Biden opposed because, he said, it was hurting Israel’s reputation in the U.S.

In public, Biden said he agreed with a draft Democratic resolution that said the 1982 Israeli invasion “dealt a severe blow” to “international terrorism” and reduced “Soviet influence” in Lebanon while offering, with U.S. leadership, “a new opportunity to build a lasting peace for the people of Lebanon and greater security for Israel.” Biden said he supported the statement but added that he wanted the resolution to also call for the eventual withdrawal of both Israeli and Syrian troops. Israel did not withdraw until the summer of 1985. Biden personally told Begin that he intentionally never publicly condemned the Israeli invasion.

Join The Conversation