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New play depicts drama of Mideast peacemaking at ‘Camp David’

April 3, 2014 at 6:33 PM EDT
Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin, Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Khaled Nabawy as Anwar Sadat in Camp David at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater March 21-May 4, 2014. Photo by Teresa Wood.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: From Afghanistan and Pakistan, we turn to another war-weary area: the Middle East. In fact, the last time leaders achieved a significant peace deal for the region was 36 years ago, at an unlikely spot close to the nation’s capital.

A new play in Washington, D.C., looks back at how against overwhelming odds, it came to be.

All eyes were on former President Jimmy Carter back in 1978 when he launched a bold effort to make peace in the Middle East by bringing bitter enemies together at the secluded presidential mountain retreat at Camp David. And there was shock 13 days later, when they emerged with an agreement. It was enough of a drama on its own, but now it’s a drama come to the stage.

RICHARD THOMAS, Actor: I have brought you here to Camp David because I thought the isolation would help us focus on the big issues. I always think better when I’m surrounded by nature.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Egyptian actor Khaled Nabawy plays Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Ron Rifkin is Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Richard Thomas is Carter.

RICHARD THOMAS: I know we can’t forget the past, but we need to keep the future in mind, because we just might leave this world in a little better shape for our children and grandchildren.

Anwar, would you begin?

KHALED NABAWY, Actor: No, no, Mr. Begin first.

RON RIFKIN, Actor: No, sir, you are the president. You should begin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I met up recently at arena stage with Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote the play, and the producer, Gerald Rafshoon, who lived the event as President Carter’s communications director.

GERALD RAFSHOON, Producer, “Camp David”: I saw that this was a story of when a devout Muslim, an orthodox Jew, and a born-again Christian went behind the closed doors, or the closed gates of Camp David, and came out back with the only peace treaty that has stood the time in the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: American officials defy reports that the talks almost fell apart last night.

I, too, lived these events, as White House correspondent for NBC News, part of the press corps kept outside. I can remember days of tension and uncertainty, and I was curious to know how 13 days of talking could become the stuff of great theater.

When the Camp David peace talks took place, what made you think this could be turned into a play, something dramatic?

GERALD RAFSHOON: Well, I was back and forth to Camp David, and I had been with Carter for many years, and I saw that as the classic story of Jimmy Carter, that it was an example of when leaders put aside their political well-being and do the right thing, even though it could cost them. There are major consequences.

Everybody, all the foreign policy experts told Carter this wasn’t a good idea, that you don’t have a negotiation between heads of state, or heads of government, unless you know how they’re going to turn out. He never flinched. There could have been a nuclear war. Israel has nuclear weapons, and the Russians were on the other side, so the stakes for the United States were the highest ever.

And Carter knew that, and he knew that it was worth staking his presidency on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Larry Wright, you could have your pick of subjects to write about, to turn into a play. What was it about this story that you decided, I can make something out of this?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, Playwright, “Camp David”: Well, for one thing, I felt intimately connected. I had lived in Georgia when Carter was governor and when he ran for president. I lived in Egypt when Nasser died and Sadat became president.

And I have reported a lot on Israel, so I felt, you know, it was my turf. And I also know how meaningful this treaty is. Having spent so much time in the Middle East, I can’t imagine what it would be like without the Camp David treaty.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are a journalist. That’s what you started out doing, and you took a journalistic approach to this. I mean, you and Jerry went and talked to people who were part of the Begin team, and the Sadat team, and in the White House. Why was that so important for this production?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It had to have three different points of view that are in collision, because that’s what it was all about. Each of these people represents the interest of their country. And they were very strong personalities.

And we had to go, actually be in those places and see the feelings that the surviving members of those delegations had, and try to recapture some of the passion.

RICHARD THOMAS: What am I supposed to sacrifice, the Sinai, Jerusalem, the Palestinians? You tell me how you can actually achieve peace without resolving all those problems?

HALLIE FOOTE, Actress: Maybe not all at once.

RICHARD THOMAS: Oh, well, just push the problem down the road, in other words.

HALLIE FOOTE: Until your next term. You have to think of your own political situation.

RICHARD THOMAS: Peace is more important than my reelection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We should mention, Rosalynn Carter, then the first lady, was involved. She’s a character as well.

GERALD RAFSHOON: Rosalynn was very vital to the success of Camp David.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It was her idea. There is a scene that I thought might be kind of striking. It’s — it’s really the last time the three of them were together.

RICHARD THOMAS: Come on. Please sit down.

RON RIFKIN: No more of this.

KHALED NABAWY: You will never…

RICHARD THOMAS: Gentlemen?

HALLIE FOOTE: How is the peacemaking coming along?

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: In this scene, the first lady, played by Hallie Foote, tries to make peace among the peacemakers.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: They were do opposed to each other, and Carter, he literally had to bar the door to try to keep them from leaving the room.

And into that, Rosalynn walks with a tray of tea. And she very subtly reminds them what they’re here for.

HALLIE FOOTE: Well, I will let the peacemakers get back to peacemaking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rafshoon and Wright were given both Carters’ voluminous personal diaries and the papers of Begin.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: It was like anti-chemistry. It was like explosives mixed together. They hated each other.

When Carter — Carter had a mistaken idea that he could just get these three men in a room together in a quiet spot, away from the press, and they would come to trust each other and like each other. And after the second day, he had to separate them. They couldn’t be in the same room together at all.

And it was Carter moving back and forth, his own shuttle diplomacy in a golf cart, that was able to try to bring some kind of deal between two men whose countries had been at war with each for 30 years.

KHALED NABAWY: Remember, in the Middle East, there is always a price to pay.

RICHARD THOMAS: I hear what you’re saying.

KHALED NABAWY: I am willing to pay any price to bring peace, Jim, but I don’t want to die for half-measures.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Each of them had so much to overcome and to sacrifice. And Sadat’s delegation, there wasn’t a single person in his delegation that agreed with him trying to make peace with Israel. In fact, one night, Carter was worried that they were going to assassinate him.

And in Begin’s delegation…

GERALD RAFSHOON: His foreign minister resigned.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Yes, his foreign minister resigned at Camp David.

And in the Israeli delegation, everybody in the delegation wanted to make peace more than Begin did, so it was the exact opposite.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jerry, you have suggested, and, in fact, in your remarks just now that President Carter really hasn’t gotten enough credit for what happened at Camp David. Can you, in a play, see that he gets credit?

GERALD RAFSHOON: Foreign policy, as you know, was never that interesting to the American people. They’re interested in their day-to-day, the economy, et cetera.

But we used to talk to Carter about the fact that he’s spending so much time on this issue, and the American people are wondering, what are you doing about gas lines, what are you doing about the economy, what are you doing about inflation?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it cost him politically.

GERALD RAFSHOON: And it cost him politically, and he didn’t care.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Larry Wright, can you correct history, or fix history, or change history…

GERALD RAFSHOON: I sure hope so, Larry.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: … in some way with — with a dramatic production?

LAWRENCE WRIGHT: One of the lessons of Camp David, the Carter Camp David, is that, you know, these were flawed men. They weren’t perfect men. I can’t correct history, but we can remember it.

You know, what I was trying to do is retrieve something that’s very important that’s been neglected. And it was an extraordinary achievement. Whatever you think about Carter as a president or as a person, what he did at Camp David was remarkable.

RICHARD THOMAS: I’m sure there’s more for negotiation. That is why we’re here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The play continues at Arena Stage in Washington through the beginning of May.

Joining me now to talk about the state of the peace process today, more than three decades later, is our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner.

Margaret, so, you haven’t been covering Washington as long as I have, as you just saw, but you have watched the Middle East. How important were the Camp David accords and are they still?

MARGARET WARNER: As Lawrence Wright and Jerry Rafshoon just said, really essential, because you took the two most powerful armies and the — and sworn enemies, and they cut a separate peace, but they cut a peace.

And that really prevented the likelihood of any kind of broad Israeli-Arab war again, and the nuclear deterrent of Israel helped. But it’s also remarkable how enduring it was. Sadat foreshadows that he’s going to be assassinated, and he was just three years later. Through the whole Mubarak era, Hosni Mubarak, the Israeli and Egyptian military worked closely together. Mubarak depended on U.S. aid, tried to help tremendously in Israeli-Palestinian talks, though they never really bore fruit.

And then, even when Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came in, the militaries continued to control that account, and they still do. And they are fighting terrorists in the Sinai. It is important, though, to point out — and some of your clips illustrate this — what it didn’t get. Carter came into this, President Carter, wanting a comprehensive peace that would include the fate of the Palestinians…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: … that there were promises and pledges in the agreements and accords to do that. That never happened.

And Israel didn’t get what it wanted either, which was a warm peace with Egypt. They got what they called a cold peace. And Israel continued — I mean, Egyptian media continues to be filled with invective. And, finally, of course, we have the settlers, who were at 3,500 at the time of the play. They are now 340,000.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are those things that they couldn’t get then part of the reason it’s so hard to get peace today?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Judy, they remain the exact same issues.

When I sat down — I sort of blogged about this — when I sat down and watched this play, I thought, oh, my God, nothing has changed. It’s the same issues, the settlers, the occupied territories, whose land it is.

But to me, what came out of this play is, you know, there’s always carping about how this American president is handling it or that, or how this Israeli or Palestinian leader is going to step up to the plate or not. What the play brought out to me was, on human terms, how alike they are.

They are both prisoners of their past. They have a deep sense of grievance about one another and about the world and how…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean Begin and Sadat.

MARGARET WARNER: Begin and Sadat and the Israelis and Palestinians.

So, for instance, Begin cannot forgive that the world stood by and let six million Jews be slaughtered. The Palestinians cannot forgive that the world stood by and let the Israelis displace them in these territories. And they don’t believe that the United States can ever empathetically understand what it is like to live with a blood feud. And they seem unable to escape theirs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And much of that is still true today.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s — exactly. I think that is exactly what is going on today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Online, Margaret reflects more on what the play “Camp David” teaches us about history and the current peace efforts.