Biden likes to recount his face-to-face confrontations with world leaders and how he gave them a piece of his mind.
Biden says that just this past week, he gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a tongue lashing that he will not soon forget:
President Biden said he confronted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) directly Friday about the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, telling him in a “straightforward and direct” way that the killing was unacceptable and “making clear what I thought of it at the time and what I think of it now.”
The crown prince, who is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, “basically said that he was not personally responsible for it,” Biden recounted. “I indicated that I thought he was.”
That account is from The Washington Post, which then goes on to quote Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to the US, who confirmed that Biden did in fact bring up Khashoggi’s murder, though not in as confrontational a way as Biden claimed:
It was candid, it was honest, it was open. And what I found profoundly refreshing is the president said, “I just need to be clear and direct with you,” and the crown prince said, “I welcome you being clear, candid and direct, because that’s the way that we move forward.”
But Fox News quotes the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir that Biden did not bring up the topic of Khashoggi at all:
“I didn’t hear that particular phrase,” al-Jubeir said. “The President mentioned that the US is committed to human rights because since the founding fathers wrote the constitution and he also made the point that American presidents — this is part of the agenda of every American president.”
So — did Biden directly confront MBS face-to-face on Khashoggi’s murder or not?
Writing for The New York Times, Peter Baker writes about Biden’s collection of stories about how he has confronted dictators
Mr. Biden is by nature a storyteller with a penchant for embellishment. He has often told the story of meeting President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in 2011 as vice president and telling him, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.” Others present at the time had no memory of that specific exchange.
Mr. Biden has similarly described an unvarnished confrontation in 1993 with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian nationalist leader who unleashed an ethnic war in the Balkans. “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one,” Mr. Biden, then a senator, related having told Mr. Milosevic, according to a 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep.” Some other people in the room later said they did not recall that line.
Mr. Biden likes presenting himself as standing up to dictators and crooked figures. Another favorite story stemmed from a meeting with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan in 2008, when the Afghan leader denied that his government was awash in corruption. Mr. Biden said he grew so irritated that he threw down his napkin, declared, “This dinner is over,” and stormed out.
Often, others in the room for such sessions say that some version of what Mr. Biden has described did take place, only not with quite as much camera-ready theatricality.
So when he claims he did not hear Biden berate MBS to the degree the president claims, al-Jubeir is in good company.
Actually, Baker may have forgotten an example.
Here is Biden speaking at the Foreign Affairs Issue Launch on January 23, 2018, talking about his time as vice president when he warned that he would cut off $1 billion in aid to Ukraine:
And I was supposed to announce that there was another billion-dollar loan guarantee. And I had gotten a commitment from Poroshenko and from Yatsenyuk that they would take action against the state prosecutor. And they didn’t.
So they said they had—they were walking out to a press conference. I said, nah, I’m not going to—or, we’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said, you have no authority. You’re not the president. The president said—I said, call him. (Laughter.) I said, I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars. I said, you’re not getting the billion. I’m going to be leaving here in, I think it was about six hours. I looked at them and said: I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money. Well, son of a b***h. (Laughter.) He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time. [emphasis added]
Here too, all we have is Biden’s account of events — and Biden is actually being modest about the pressure he put on Ukraine. According to Tablet Magazine, a highly placed source confirmed that it was also Biden who pressured Ukraine into voting ‘yes’ on UN Resolution 2334 which declared that Jewish settlements in the West Bank (including the Old City of Jerusalem) were in violation of international law.
But in fact, we have an example on the record when Biden actually did angrily confront a world leader — Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel.
The Begin Center Diary blog has the full text of an article in The Jerusalem Post by Moshe Zak, written on March 13, 1992, describing how Biden, when he was a Senator, lost his temper with Israeli PM Menachem Begin during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing:
During that committee hearing, at the height of the Lebanon War, Sen. John Biden (Delaware) had attacked Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria and threatened that if Israel did not immediately cease this activity, the US would have to cut economic aid to Israel.
When the senator raised his voice and banged twice on the table with his fist, Begin commented to him: “This desk is designed for writing, not for fists. Don’t threaten us with slashing aid. Do you think that because the US lends us money it is entitled to impose on us what we must do?We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats. Take note: we do not want a single soldier of yours to die for us.” [emphasis added]
But ironically, in this case, where there is a clear example of Biden giving an ultimatum to a world leader, Biden himself is eager to deny that it ever happened. Sarah Honig of the Jerusalem Post writes:
Back 1982, Senator Biden (D-Delaware) threatened to cut off aid to Israel. In subsequent years he hotly denied this but Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s late right-hand man Yechiel Kadisha’i unequivocally confirmed Biden’s bullying in many conversations we held. [emphasis added]
News reports at the time seem to confirm the ultimatum. On June 23, 1982, The New York Times reported Mood Is ‘Angry’ As Begin Meets Panel Of Senate
The bitterest exchange was said to have been between Mr. Begin and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, who told the Israeli leader that he was not critical of the Lebanon operation but felt that Israel had to halt the policy of establishing new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He said Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlements policy. [emphasis added]
There is no mention of threats from Biden about the settlements, just anger. According to this account in The New York Times, instead of threatening to take action, Biden was warning Begin about the prospect that Israel would lose support in the US.
But on the very next day, on June 24, The New York Times reported further details:
Reporting on his meetings with the members of Congress, Mr. Begin said one of the senators had threatened to cut off aid if Israel continued creating settlements in the West Bank. The senator is reported to have been Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware. [emphasis added]
So which was it: did Biden warn that Israel was facing the prospect of losing support or was Biden threatening that he, himself, would see to it that aid would be cut off?
Time Magazine also recounts the confrontation between Biden and Begin:
Senator Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat, jabbing his finger at Begin, warned that U.S. support for Israel was eroding. Begin shouted back: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off aid to give up our principles! [emphasis added]
The Time Magazine account allows for the possibility that Biden was not actually warning that he would cut aid. He was pointing out that US opposition to the settlements could lead to the loss of US support. Begin saw Biden’s comments, made in anger, as an ultimatum to cut aid.
Begin’s own account of what happened also seems to indicate that Biden’s “threat” was less than explicit. Yisrael Medad quotes on his blog My Right Word the now-deleted page from the website of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which gives Begin’s own account of the incident in his own words:
He [Biden] hinted – more than hinted – that if we continue with this policy, it is possible that he will propose cutting our financial aid. And to this I gave him a clear answer: Sir, do not threaten us with cutting aid.
There is no record of what Biden actually said, but even according to Begin there was no explicit threat. But whatever Biden said, it apparently hinted that more than just an erosion of support was at stake. And that Biden himself could have a role in it.
So to recap:
Moshe Zak article: Biden “threatened that if Israel did not immediately cease this activity, the US would have to cut economic aid to Israel.”
The New York Times (June 23, 1982): Biden “said Israel was losing support in this country because of the settlements policy.”
The New York Times: (June 24, 1982): “Mr. Begin said one of the senators had threatened to cut off aid if Israel continued creating settlements in the West Bank.”
Time Magazine: Biden “warned that U.S. support for Israel was eroding. Begin shouted back: “Don’t threaten us with cutting off aid to give up our principles!”
Menachem Begin: “He [Biden] hinted – more than hinted – that if we continue with this policy, it is possible that he will propose cutting our financial aid. And to this I gave him a clear answer: Sir, do not threaten us with cutting aid.”
Even according to the Moshe Zak article, which seems to be the main source usually cited, the warning was that the US would cut off aid — not that Biden would personally see to it.
Even according to Begin’s personal account, whatever it was that Biden specifically said, it only hinted at the loss of aid — it was not an explicit threat.
According to Time Magazine, whatever Biden said about the erosion of US support led Begin to understand it as a threat and call it that on the spot in front of everyone.
Based on The New York Times article from June 24, it seems that reports of the “threat” are based on Begin’s account to the media.
Whatever actually happened, Biden could have responded immediately when it was clear that Begin understood what he said as an ultimatum. He could have assured Begin in from of everyone that he was not making any threat. Biden did not do that. Nor did he seem to respond immediately in the press to Begin’s account of what happened.
Without a transcript of what transpired, there is no way to be sure what exactly Biden said, whether it was said as an ultimatum, and what exactly he was warning would happen. But it does seem possible that under the pressure of the moment, Begin responded to something that was not an explicit threat.
And Begin was under a lot of pressure from the committee.
According to that June 23 article in The New York Times:
Prime Minister Menachem Begin left the United States today after what was described as a highly emotional confrontation on Capitol Hill with senators critical of Israel’s policies in Lebanon and in the occupied West Bank of the Jordan.
”I think it is fair to say that in my eight years in Washington I’ve never seen such an angry session with a foreign head of state,” said Senator Paul E. Tsongas, Democrat of Massachusetts. [emphasis added]
Under the circumstances, Begin was not about to just sit there and accept criticism of Israel passively.
As Moshe Zak himself pointed out:
And not only with Carter, but at all his meetings with heads of state and government, Begin customarily replied with direct, frank words against anything he perceived as harming Israel’s interests or honor. [emphasis added]