Dramatizing the negotiations


The new play Camp David illustrates the necessity and difficulty of peace, and how little has changed in 35 years

Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (L), Israeli Premier Menachem Begin (R) and US President Jimmy Carter (C) shake hands after a press conference in the East Room of the White House, on September 18, 1978


Fictionalizing or dramatizing history is a dangerous business. It usually comes off badly. Indeed, the pitfalls of historical drama and fiction are the primary subject of one of the most underrated plays of all time, John Ford’s 1634 masterpiece Perkin Warbeck (appropriately subtitled, A Strange Truth). There are obvious exceptions, beginning with Shakespeare and Marlowe, and leading all the way up to the series of 20th century novels by Gore Vidal that constructed a brilliantly contrarian revision of received American history. So, sometimes, it can be done right.

On Sunday night, I had the pleasure of seeing a preview performance of an important new play from one of the best living American journalists and writers, Camp David by Lawrence Wright. The ingeniously-staged production tells the story of the 13-day-long negotiations between Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin that resulted in the basis for the enduring Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Rosalynn Carter is added as a fourth, crucially leavening character who intervenes with gentleness and encouragement at key moments.

But within minutes it’s clear that Wright isn’t merely harkening back to those historic days 35 years ago: he’s unmistakably talking about present concerns, and anyone in the audience who reads the newspaper will see echoes of the disputes between President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

These issues are front-loaded for two reasons. First, the Egyptians really did arrive at Camp David with a proposal that focused heavily on the Palestinian issue, particularly the question of settlements and Jerusalem. The Israelis wouldn’t hear of it, and bridging this divide and getting Sadat to sign what amounted to a “separate peace” was Carter’s essential challenge. So dramatizing the negotiations – with a good deal of artistic license but also a laudable fidelity to the historical record within the context of a 90-minute play – puts these still-burning issues front and center.

Wright plainly has his eye on today’s headlines as much as the historical events depicted. Sadat’s protestations that Middle East peace is meaningless without Israel conforming to UN Security Council Resolution 242 and withdrawing from territories occupied in the 1967 war, including the West Bank and East Jerusalem, remains not only a relevant but the relevant question mark over whether there is to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Early on the Sadat character, in many ways echoing Abbas, insists he is “flexible on everything… except land and sovereignty.” Big exceptions, and naturally the line draws an appropriate laugh from the audience. In the end, of course, the Egyptians put their own interests first, and, since they had no other Arab support, they weren’t actually beholden to represent other parties that strenuously objected to their negotiations in the first place. But they tried and got nowhere, except in vague annexes that are not actually part of the Egyptian-Israeli treaty itself.

Those annexes, while of historical significance, proved irrelevant, and the only thing that mattered was that Egypt and Israel did go on to sign a full-fledged treaty which survived despite the tumultuous changes of the past several years. It’s a testament to the lasting power of Arab-Israeli agreements – especially when compared to the disastrous consequences of unilateral Israeli actions such as those in Gaza and Lebanon, which left no one on the other side with any incentive to make the agreements work.

Netanyahu is the ideological heir to Begin much more than Abbas is to Sadat. And in Wright’s play, Begin’s profound skepticism about Arab intentions and indeed the very possibility of a peace agreement – even with Egypt alone – conjure unmistakable echoes of Netanyahu and other leading Israelis’ circumspection about an agreement with the Palestinians.

In Wright’s play as in life, Begin was categorically opposed to the concept of a Palestinian state or the idea of a compromise on Jerusalem. Netanyahu, at least rhetorically, ultimately came to endorse the notion of a two-state agreement, but he continues to rule out compromise on Jerusalem. And in Camp David, Carter and Begin have numerous arguments about the need for a settlement freeze during negotiations – dismissed by Begin – that strongly recall at least the thrust of the confrontation between Obama and Netanyahu over the same issue. “That man’s a psycho,” Wright’s Carter says of the intransigent Begin. One can easily imagine Obama having said the same thing about Netanyahu during his first term.

Begin is also single-mindedly obsessed with Israeli security and the Jewish people’s experiences with the threat of extermination, most notably the Holocaust. Like Begin, Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, was a follower of the extremist “revisionist” Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and the present Israeli Prime Minister follows in that tradition. In the play, Begin cites security for virtually every objection he makes to compromise. No one can miss the allusion.

Begin, as Camp David reflects, was among the most prominent early champions of the idea that history, religion, and other grounds justify Israeli irredentism in the occupied Palestinian territories. In the play, he repeatedly denies that there is any occupation and finds the idea of territorial compromise in “Judea and Samaria” unthinkable. Israeli thinking, at least among political elites, appears to have come full circle on this issue. Having become amenable to the idea, to some extent, there is presently a great retrenchment, and the emergence of a strong annexationist trend in Israeli politics reflects Begin’s attitudes if not his actual policies. “We speak in terms of autonomy, but not statehood,” the Begin character says in Camp David. Indeed, that is how many right-wing Israelis are once again starting to think about the Palestinian future. Moreover, and more to the point, the distinction between autonomy and independence precisely defines the Palestinian reality that has been operational since the 1993 Oslo Accords, with no end in sight.

Camp David is a significant dramatic achievement, and unlike several other recent failed productions about contemporary politics (Frost/Nixon being among the more notable a rare exceptions), this engaging and adroitly revealing play is likely to prove theatrically successful. This is only the first production of it, and there are bound to be more. The performances of all four major actors, including Egyptian film star Khaled Nabawy as Sadat, were, even in this preview, almost flawless. And while the play is still being revised and enriched before it officially opens on April 2, what has already been accomplished should be sufficient to achieve a lasting impact, at least on the stage.

One of the more subtle, but unmistakable, subtexts in Camp David is not simply that Sadat knows that he is gambling with his life. Of course he knew. What is more intriguing is the small passage in which he explains to Rosalynn Carter the meaning, and perhaps purpose, of the 1973 war. Sadat speaks in terms of a recuperation in 1973 of Arab “dignity” following the debacle of 1967 that made peace possible for Egyptians. But there is a clear insinuation that Sadat went into the war knowing he could make a point but could not win, because, as the character explains in the play, “I cannot fight the United States.” Many of us suspect that he entered that war hoping for victory, but strongly anticipating that a clear Arab victory would ultimately prove unattainable, and that he was already looking beyond the conflict toward negotiation.

The Sadat character explains the relatively strong performance by the Egyptian military as essential to the negotiations because it helped the nation recover emotionally from the humiliation and shock of 1967. But it also crucially sent a clear warning to the Israelis, while, even more importantly perhaps, proved to the Arabs that a military reversal of 1967 was not possible. It would either stand or have to be negotiated.

Camp David is very frank that the negotiations almost fell apart and were largely saved by Carter’s emotional last-minute appeal to Begin regarding the future of his grandchildren. Knowing that the agreement cost Sadat his life, and that all the issues regarding the central question of Palestine remain unresolved, the play’s “happy ending” is, like the reality of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement at best bittersweet. They are only pleasing in stark contrast to the only real alternative.

In Wright’s words, “The message of Camp David – both the play and the real event – is that peace is possible. It’s just very hard, and it requires making bitter compromises and acknowledging the justice of your enemy’s narrative.” Wisdom, good theater, and the benefit of hindsight aren’t going to move any of the principals in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But anyone who attends Camp David will leave with a much stronger sense of what is at stake, how long these arguments have been going on more or less unchanged, and how difficult it really will be to resolve them. And yet, that is not just possible: it is necessary.