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A Front-Row Seat at Camp David

A journalist looks back as a new drama about the Mideast peace accords opens

It was easy to get swept up in such a heady moment. In March 1979, as a 25-year-old production assistant with NPR, I was standing on the north lawn of the White House, witness to an improbable moment in history.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin flanked President Jimmy Carter to sign the peace treaty between their two nations that grew out of the historic Camp David Accords six months earlier. Wide-eyed, I could be excused for thinking at the time that the plates of the earth had shifted and doves were descending on the Middle East.

Premiere of the Play, ‘Camp David’

Now 35 years later, the story behind that story will be told on stage. Tonight, Camp David, a drama by Lawrence Wright, has its world premiere at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Jimmy Carter, now 89, will be in the audience as will Sadat’s widow, Jehan Sadat.

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To me, the play is a reminder how the optimism of youth often morphs into the reality of the world as we age.

Back then, Sadat and Begin ruled two countries that had been in a continuous state of war for 30 years. Yet Carter managed to get them to spend 13 days together in close quarters at the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, 62 miles north of the capital — hammering out a roadmap to peace. Never mind that every foreign policy expert at the time, including Henry Kissinger, told Carter it was a mistake.

A Quaint Era for Negotiating

Carter was determined to have the talks play out in private, which was actually possible. This was, after all, a quaint era, long before cell phones and social media.

“It’s hard enough to negotiate privately,” Carter insisted. “I don’t want to negotiate in the press.” So for nearly two weeks, the principals were sequestered at Camp David and reporters held camp five miles away in the town of Thurmont.

“Carter gambled his presidency and put everything aside to make peace in the Middle East,” recalls Gerald Rafshoon, the president’s Communications Director at the time, now the Camp David producer. “He was the bravest president in my lifetime.”

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Initially, Rafshoon — who has worked in film and TV since leaving the Carter White House — hoped to turn the Camp David story into a TV movie. But he was rebuffed by an ABC executive, who told him: “I get it. You get it.” Then, pointing towards the window overlooking a Los Angeles expressway, he said, “They’ll never get it.”

Turning History into a Drama

Years later, when Rafshoon saw the play Frost/Nixon, he realized Camp David could be a play. Rafshoon then met New Yorker writer Wright, author of the Pulitizer-Prize winning book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Wright loved the idea and signed on.

“I’m the same age as Israel,” Wright told me. “We were both born in 1947 [Israel officially became a state in 1948], so it’s a country I’d like to think is my contemporary. I’m impatient for that region to come to maturity.”

Before writing the script, Wright intensively researched the Camp David talks. He traveled to Plains, Ga. to talk with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and to Egypt and Israel, where he debriefed surviving members of the Sadat and Begin delegations.

Rosalynn Carter’s Diary

Wright discovered that Rosalynn Carter had kept a diary throughout the Camp David days and pushed Rafshoon to ask her for it. She politely said, “Sure. Around here somewhere.” The diary’s 200 typed pages arrived by mail in a manila envelope, and Wright proceeded to mark them up. A month later, Rafshoon told Wright: “Rosalynn wants her diary back. It’s her only copy.” Embarrassed, Wright wrote what he called “a difficult letter to Mrs. Carter.”

After reading the First Lady’s diary, Wright included her as the fourth major character in the play because of her role “making peace among the peacemakers.”

While writing Camp David, Wright grew to realize that all of the peacemakers were flawed. “You had a failed president, a former Nazi collaborator and assassin in Sadat and a terrorist in Begin,” he says. “The lesson is, there are no perfect peacemakers and no perfect time.”

A Family Drama With World Leaders

Wright says the play is “almost like a family drama. And what they’re quarreling about has earthshaking consequences.”

After the near collapse of the talks, on the 13th day, Begin finally says “Habemus pacem” and Carter repeats in English, “We have peace.”

As a result, the Camp David Accords ushered in what has become a sustained, if tense, peace between Israel and Egypt. Israel was forced to return the Sinai Peninsula it captured in 1967’s Six-Day War and Egypt agreed to demilitarize the area. There have been no conflicts between the two countries since.

The High Price of Peace

Just a few years after Camp David, when I was news anchor of NPR’s All Things Considered in 1981, I got a dose of reality about the Middle East. A wire bulletin reported that Sadat had been assassinated by his military. He paid a very stiff price for making peace with Israel.

In 1988, as chief live segment producer for ABC’s Nightline, I helped bring together Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem for a live town meeting, the first time they’d debated on television.

And now this week, 35 years after Camp David, the Palestinian issue remains unresolved. Witness the latest round of Middle East talks that hit a major snag, forcing Secretary of State Kerry to call off a trip to the region. The more things change…

What Hasn’t Changed Since Camp David

The fault lines over language haven’t shifted much since Camp David either.

In the play, Begin takes exception to Carter calling the West Bank and Gaza Strip — areas Israel took in the Six-Day War — occupied territories. “They are not occupied territories! They are liberated territories!” Begin insists. When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently used the “occupied territory” term while speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas, he was forced to apologize.

The future for Camp David is uncertain. At the mere mention of taking the show to New York, Rafshoon doesn’t miss a beat. “Attention all people who want to invest in a play that goes to Broadway!” he says, adding he’d also love to take the play to London and, eventually, turn it into a movie to prove that those expressway people do get it.

Tempering My Expectations

During my adulthood, news out of the Middle East has been relentlessly grim — war, terrorism and often unsuccessful diplomacy. So I’ve tempered my expectations since that March day in 1979.

Still, the Camp David moment stands out as a notable exception to the pattern of despair. “Camp David was one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the 20th Century,” Wright says. “Without Camp David, we would be living in a more perilous world than the one we live in right now.”

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