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Camp David: Then, as today, Mideast leaders are haunted by their past

BY Margaret Warner  April 3, 2014 at 6:06 PM EST

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.

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.

I slipped into my seat at Washington’s Arena Stage on Tuesday night to watch Lawrence Wright’s “Camp David,” his dramatic re-creation of the first, lasting peace negotiation between Arabs and Jews. Just hours earlier, I watched Secretary of State John Kerry react to twin, and grievous body-blows. The hits came to his relentless nine-month campaign to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal — the latest attempt after decades of conflict and negotiation. They were landed by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both had broken their word to Kerry.

That afternoon, Abbas suddenly announced he’d signed letters to apply to 15 international conventions and treaties, despite his promise to hold off until this round of negotiations ended on April 29. Three days earlier, Netanyahu had broken his pledge to release a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners by March 29, even as the Obama administration publicly dangled the possibility of releasing jailed spy Jonathan Pollard as an inducement.

Kerry, who’s pursued this course with passion and focus, stood in front of reporters in Brussels to say that though the U.S. is eager to facilitate the process, “The leaders on both sides have to make the decisions, not us. It’s up to them to decide what they’re prepared to do, with each other, for each other, for the future, for the region, for peace.”

It was a refrain I’ve heard many times before, from other negotiators, secretaries, even presidents. Kerry isn’t ready to give up yet, but it carries the whiff of defeat.

I got on the peace process roller coaster in 1990 as diplomatic correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, at a relatively encouraging moment. It wasn’t the achievement of Camp David — an agreement that has kept peace for 36 years — but it was a breakthrough nonetheless. Secretary of State Jim Baker got the Israelis and the Arab states to sit face-to-face for 3 days in Madrid in 1991, launching nearly a decade of talks on a wide range of disputes. President George H.W. Bush had promised the Syrians and Gulf States he’d put U.S. skin in the game if they’d join the coalition against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War. Baker was delivering on that pledge, and he could knock heads too. Fresh off its Gulf War victory, the U.S. was without a power peer in the Middle East, admired, respected and feared in the region — advantages President Obama and Secretary Kerry don’t have today.

President Bush addresses the Middle East Peace Conference at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain, in October, 1991. Photo by U.S. National Archives

President Bush addresses the Middle East Peace Conference at the Royal Palace in Madrid, Spain, in October, 1991. Photo by U.S. National Archives

But Baker had no illusions. Aaron Miller, a mid-level advisor at the time, recalls visiting Baker in his hotel suite afterwards. “I’m not trying to buff your ego, but what you did was extraordinary,” he says he told his boss. Baker looked up, and in his dry Texas drawl said, “We did well. But if I had unsolicited advice for you, young man, I’d advise you to get off this train now. It could all be downhill from here.”

It wasn’t entirely downhill. The Madrid peace conference did create an atmosphere in which Israelis and Palestinians met secretly, without the U.S., and concluded the historic 1993 Oslo accords. And Israel and Syria talked for years about how to settle the Golan Heights issue. But neither route bore fruit.

“Camp David” is about a real achievement. Two bitter enemies, with guidance from a committed U.S. president, forged an agreement that has stood the test of time. So why did I find it disheartening?

Because from the first moment, it showed that precious little has changed. Certainly not the litany of issues: Who has the right to the land Israel seized in the ’67 War? Are the Palestinian lands “occupied” territories or “liberated” ones? What should become of the Jewish settlers in those territories — some 3,500 in 1978, some 340,000 today? How could Israel ever be secure in its dangerous neighborhood with narrower borders?

But even more disheartening is the human dimension brought out by the play. The biggest barriers are not these issues, but the mindsets of the two protagonists — and their successors — that make them prisoners of their pasts. They are so alike. Both are obsessed with who did wrong to whom. And both share a deep sense of victimhood, a certainty that neither the world nor their adversary recognizes their humanity.

(L to R) Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in Camp David. Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Richard Thomas as Jimmy Carter and Ron Rifkin as Menachem Begin in Camp David. Photo by Teresa Wood.

In “Camp David,” Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin fairly oozes his sense of betrayal by a world that did nothing as 6 million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust. The Jews were killed, he screams at President Jimmy Carter, “because they didn’t have a country of their own, nor valiant Jewish army to defend them …So you ask me to rely on your assurances to safeguard Israel’s existence? I’m sorry … I will not allow Jewish people to face extinction again.” Likewise, Kerry apparently hasn’t won Netanyahu’s confidence in the newly designed post-occupation security plan drawn up by four-star Gen. John Allen.

And in another foreshadowing, Begin is haunted by his family history. He tells Carter of his father in a ghetto in Poland, striking a policeman who’d snapped off a rabbi’s beard, and getting beaten bloody for it. “I am the son of set of Ze’ev Dov,” he says to Carter. “I tell you this story so you know what kind of Jew you are dealing with!” Likewise, though Netanyahu denies it, most observers believe he can’t shake the ideology of his hawkish late father, a fervent Zionist who distrusted the Arabs and advocated a “Greater Israel” encompassing all of the West Bank and beyond.

Menahem Begin with Rosalynn Carter and Jimmy Carter at Camp David. Photo by U.S. National Archives

Menahem Begin with Rosalynn Carter and Jimmy Carter at Camp David. Photo by U.S. National Archives

For Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, the grievances are rooted in his conviction that the U.S. and Europe will always side with Israel, and that neither the Israelis or the rest of the world see the Arabs as human beings. “I sympathize with all Jewish people, for their suffering. But does he see me?” he says to Rosalynn Carter. “For him the Arab has no meaning, only as an enemy, not as a human being.” That distance remains even wider today than 36 years ago, thanks to the Israeli security barrier separating the two societies.

Finally, despite the predictable carping about the Kerry approach, this play — which is about a triumph — also makes it clear that on a human level, the United States will never be entirely trusted by either side. The Sadat and Begin characters share the belief that the ever youthful, optimistic, forward-looking American nation can never empathize with peoples like theirs.

“Christians cannot understand our history, what the land means to the Jewish people. It’s impossible,” Begin says, dimissing Carter’s descriptions of his ties to his family’s Georgia farmland.

Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter confer at Camp David. Photo by U.S. National Archives

Anwar Sadat and Jimmy Carter confer at Camp David. Photo by U.S. National Archives

Later Sadat strikes a similar note. Carter reacts to Sadat’s comment that “God has told us we cannot trust the Jew, they are a treacherous people,” by retorting, “I’ve known bigots in my life. They almost always pick up a holy book to justify their prejudice.” Sadat explodes: “You are an ignorant man! Ignorant of who we are! You know nothing about our problems!”

Sadat and Begin are actually right on that score. Despite our bloody civil war, we Americans do not know viscerally what it’s like to be consumed by a blood feud. And we are the luckier for it.

For a Middle East aficionado like myself, “Camp David” is filled with so many telling kernels that it’s hard to choose among them. But here’s a revealing one. Near the end, even as a deal appears at hand, Sadat says to Rosalynn Carter, “I want to believe it, but my heart knows better. That Arabs and Jews can live together, without war? No, we are too much alike. We have too much history…For 30 years we have lived with our enemy. Can we live without him?”

That is the question indeed. Now nearly seven decades since Israel’s birth, with both societies paying a terrible price for the endless hostilities, neither Israelis nor Palestinians seem prepared to live without their enemy. Or at least their leaders can’t. They still seem in the grip of their hatreds and fears. Like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, they’re locked into mutually assured frustration, afraid to let go of the past to reach for the future.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correctly refer to the location of the ghetto described by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. It was in Poland; it is not a Polish ghetto, as originally stated.