Biden Is Not the First U.S. President to Cut Off Weapons to Israel

The president was livid. He had just been shown pictures of civilians killed by Israeli shelling, including a small baby with an arm blown off. He ordered aides to get the Israeli prime minister on the phone and then dressed him down sharply.

The president was Ronald Reagan, the year was 1982, and the battlefield was Lebanon, where Israelis were attacking Palestinian fighters. The conversation Mr. Reagan had with Prime Minister Menachem Begin that day, Aug. 12, would be one of the few times aides ever heard the usually mild-mannered president so exercised.

“It is a holocaust,” Mr. Reagan told Mr. Begin angrily.

Mr. Begin, whose parents and brother were killed by the Nazis, snapped back, “Mr. President, I know all about a holocaust.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Reagan retorted, it had to stop. Mr. Begin heeded the demand. Twenty minutes later, he called back and told the president that he had ordered a halt to the shelling. “I didn’t know I had that kind of power,” Mr. Reagan marveled to aides afterward.

It would not be the only time he would use it to rein in Israel. In fact, Mr. Reagan used the power of American arms several times to influence Israeli war policy, at different points ordering warplanes and cluster munitions to be delayed or withheld. His actions take on new meaning four decades later, as President Biden delays a shipment of bombs and threatens to withhold other offensive weapons from Israel if it attacks Rafah, in southern Gaza.

Even as Republicans rail against Mr. Biden, accusing him of abandoning an ally in the middle of a war, supporters of the president’s decision pointed to the Reagan precedent. If it was reasonable for the Republican presidential icon to limit arms to impose his will on Israel, they argue, it should be acceptable for the current Democratic president to do the same.

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