COLUMN

The Play’s the Thing

The Play’s the Thing

This past weekend, I had a chance to see Lawrence Wright’s play at Arena Stage about the Camp David peace summit of September 1978. As a refugee from the other Camp David summit, in July 2000 (the one that didn’t work), my expectations going in were pretty low. After all, how does one stage a dramatic and compelling theatrical event about a Middle East peace conference, even one that produced a treaty between Israel and Egypt six months later? Although this is Washington, where policy wonks, diplomats, and assorted foreign-policy addicts would be inclined to attend a play like this, I really wasn’t sure whether Wright could pull it off.  Summits by and large can be tedious, claustrophobic, and exhausting. At the second Camp David meeting, the most exciting thing that happened was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak choking on peanuts, saved only by Gidi Grinstein, the youngest member of the Israeli delegation.

I must admit that I was surprised. As a dramatic presentation, the play was an impressive success. My standard for evaluating plays and movies these days is admittedly low; if I don’t look at my watch during the show, it goes into the enjoyment category. Yet I can comfortably say that, in about 90 minutes or so, Wright did the near impossible: held my attention; captured the essence of the personalities of Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and Jimmy Carter; and reflected the stakes at the only Middle Eastern summit ever hosted by a U.S. president that actually worked.(In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had a couple of phone conversations with Wright over the course of the last year about the play.)

The acting was brilliant. Khaled El Nabawy, the acclaimed Egyptian actor, was a superb President Sadat. Passionate, angry at times, thoroughly likable throughout, Nabawy conveyed the spirit of a larger-than-life figure who, in journeying to Jerusalem and ultimately in his willingness to agree to a separate peace with Israel, became one of the great men of history. Wright’s script also has Nabawy in at least two chilling instances foreshadowing his own death at the hands of Islamic extremists in October 1981, a reminder of the truly existential nature of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Yitzhak Rabin was on my mind during those moments.

Ron Rifkin’s portrayal of Begin was equally captivating and compelling. The mix of humor, passion, intellectual brilliance, and anger that drove Israel’s prime minister to take a step that even Carter told me, in his view, went further than the one Sadat had taken was fully revealed. Tough, legalistic, withholding, exasperating, and proud of his identity as a Jew, Begin was the only participant at the summit who was prepared to walk away and could have without significant political cost. At one point, Begin says to Carter that he wants to make clear precisely what kind of Jew the U.S. president is dealing with. The play concludes with an emotional scene recounted in Carter’s memoirs of Begin refusing to sign until the prime minister looks at the photographs Carter had signed for his grandchildren. (What impact the photos actually had on Begin’s decision is unclear. On that final day, there were two issues — Jerusalem and a letter on settlements — both of which broke Begin’s way. I suspect a bit of dramatic license on this one, but that’s OK.)

Finally, Richard Thomas is a truly likable President Carter. The relentlessness, risk-readiness, religiosity, passion for peacemaking, and the idealism are all there. But gone is the moralism and holier-than-thou attitude that at times has made post-President Carter a guy who thinks he has all the answers to Middle East peace. Carter is made all the more accessible and vulnerable in the play by Hallie Foote’s wonderful portrayal of Rosalynn Carter, whose common sense, humor, and "don’t give me this kind of crap, Jimmy" steals the show. The first lady, who gave her husband the idea of going to Camp David with the two leaders, also has wonderful interactions with both Sadat and Begin in which she charms them and offers sage advice.

The play’s bottom line is this: Sadat and Begin made the idea of Egyptian-Israeli peace possible, but Carter’s unique commitment made it real. And that brings me to the main takeaway. Getting past the theatrical, the dramatic, the Hollywood-like happy ending, what does Camp David (the play and the events on which it is based) teach us that could be applied to the world today? That peace is possible but hard, that you need a strong U.S. role — sure, that’s true. But above all, Camp David tells viewers that Arab-Israeli peace (double for Israeli-Palestinian peace) is impossible unless you have the kinds of leaders with the will, skill, and courage to risk their political fortunes — sometimes even their lives.

Sadat and Begin couldn’t stand one another. They met three times at the summit: twice at the beginning — until Israeli Attorney General Aharon Barak told National Security Council staffer William Quandt that Carter should keep them apart and do the mediating — and once at the end. They were men with big agendas, Quandt told me, "not politicians looking over their shoulders." (Sadat wanted the Sinai back and a relationship with the United States, while Begin saw a moment to take the largest and most powerful Arab state off the confrontation line and cement his own hold over the West Bank and Jerusalem.) The two leaders were masters of their political houses, not prisoners of their constituencies; they saw a doable deal; and there was an American president who was prepared to take the risks necessary to strike an agreement.

Camp David is an uplifting and heroic tale. But it should not be turned into an exercise in sentimentality, let alone a poster child for today’s Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking or a prescription for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts. The 1978 summit succeeded not because of particular processes that can be replicated, but because the right people were in the right place at the right time. None of this exists today. There’s no Begin, no Sadat, and no Carter, and I wonder sincerely whether the terms of a doable deal could ever be reached. (The announcement of a unity government between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization on Wednesday doesn’t seem to have helped anything.)

Therein lies both the triumph of the first Camp David summit — and Wright’s play — and the tragedy of current peacemaking efforts.