By Daniel Dale, Oren Liebermann and Amir Tal, CNN
Updated: Sun, 05 Dec 2021 13:33:09 GMT
President Joe Biden has a favorite story about his long relationship with Israel. For decades, he has been publicly recounting his 1973 meeting with then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir -- which he described in 2015 as "one of the most consequential meetings I've ever had in my life."
But parts of the version of the story Biden told on Wednesday, at a White House menorah lighting for the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, were not accurate.
Most of the details of Biden's Wednesday account were the same or very similar to the details in his previous accounts. Biden said that Meir kept referring to a bunch of maps, that future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was present, that Meir offered to take a photo with Biden, and that Meir painted a dark picture of Israel's security situation but then assured him that Israel had a "secret weapon" in its conflicts with its neighbors: "We have no place else to go."
But two elements of Biden's Wednesday version were different than usual, and both of these changes were incorrect. One of the falsehoods was obviously an accidental slip; the other was more substantial.
Biden began on Wednesday as follows: "And during the Six-Day War, I had an opportunity to -- she invited me to come over because I was going to be the liaison between she and the Egyptians about the Suez, and so on and so forth." Later in the story, he suggested that Meir had referred to him during the meeting as "Mr. Ambassador."
Facts First: Biden misspoke about when his meeting with Meir occurred. The meeting took place about five weeks before the Yom Kippur War in 1973, not during the Six-Day War in 1967. More significantly, Biden inflated his importance to Israel at the time. There is no evidence that Meir had any intention of using him as any sort of "liaison" between Israel and Egypt.
At the time of the Six-Day War in 1967, Biden was still a law student and Meir was not yet prime minister.
Biden's "liaison" claim is vague, but experts on the Yom Kippur War say it is also clearly inaccurate. While Biden did visit Egypt in 1973 just before he visited Israel, and told Meir what Egyptian officials had told him, there is zero indication that Meir wanted to use a 30-year-old American who had had never previously been to Israel and who had been a senator for only nine months as an intermediary in a complicated and critical conflict. In fact, an Israeli government official's written summary of the meeting said Biden had seemed inexperienced and that Meir had vehemently rejected his proposal for Israel to unilaterally withdraw from certain territory as a step toward peace.
A White House official suggested to CNN on Thursday that Biden's assertion that "she invited me to come over because I was going to be the liaison between she and the Egyptians about the Suez" was simply a reference to the fact that he had met with both Egyptian and Israeli officials on the 1973 trip to discuss relations between their countries.
But Biden's words, which were called false by the Republican National Committee on Thursday, conveyed the impression that Meir sought to use him in an important diplomatic role. Experts say that is indeed baseless.
"There is no reason to believe that Golda, who as Biden himself described, did not trust a diplomatic process, would voluntarily ask an inexperienced young senator to be her liaison for such a mission," said Uri Bar-Joseph, a Haifa University political science professor and the author of a book on what was happening in the Israeli government prior to the Yom Kippur War.
Bar-Joseph said in an email that there is "nothing" in the Israeli summary of the August 31, 1973, meeting to even "hint" that Meir had invited Biden to be a liaison. And Asaf Siniver, a University of Birmingham associate professor in international security and the editor of a book on the Yom Kippur War, said in an email, "As far as I know there is no basis to the claim that he was 'going to be the liaison' between the sides."
In Biden's Wednesday telling of the story, the only one we could find in which he spoke of a "liaison" role, he said of Meir: "She looked at me and she said, 'Mr. Ambassador, would you like a photograph?'" In some other tellings of the story, though, Biden has said that Meir addressed him just before or during the photo opportunity as "son" or as "senator," not as "Mr. Ambassador."
An Israeli summary of the meeting
Meir died in 1978, and it's impossible to know precisely what was said between her and Biden 48 years ago. But the Israeli summary of the 100-minute meeting, an internal memo written by a government official at the time, provides useful information.
The summary, which was discussed in the Israeli media in 2020 and is available online in Israel's state archives, said Biden acknowledged he was not an expert on Egypt, said Biden was greeted warmly on his trip to Egypt but had met with only second-tier officials, and said Meir made extended remarks in which she argued against Biden's proposal for Israel to pursue peace by withdrawing from certain territory he didn't think had strategic value. (The summary didn't identify the territory Biden was talking about but said it wasn't the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights or Sharm el-Sheikh.)
The Israeli official who wrote the summary, Gideon Yarden, ended by offering his personal assessment of Biden. He wrote that Biden was full of admiration and appreciation toward Meir, and kept saying he had come to learn, "but on the other hand" spoke in a manner that reflected "his age and diplomatic 'experience.'" Yarden put the word "experience" in quotation marks, conveying sarcasm.
Another part of the Israeli account of the meeting differs from an account Biden offered in 2015.
In a speech marking Israeli Independence Day, Biden, then vice president, said he had told Meir and Rabin during the meeting that "I thought that they (Egypt) were getting ready to attack again." He added: "And everyone including my military and Israeli military thought I was crazy."
The Israeli summary does not note any such comment from Biden. Rather, the summary reported that Biden had conveyed that, of all the officials he had met in Egypt, none of them denied Israeli's absolute military superiority, and that the officials had argued it would be impossible for Egypt to go to war now against Israel.
In reality, Egypt and Syria ended up attacking Israel in early October 1973. The attack also caught Israel by surprise.