Barbara Walters, impresario of peace

CELEBRITY journalist Barbara Walters, who died last Friday at the age of 93, owed much of her fame to her interviews with Middle Eastern leaders. These included the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Mu‘ammar Qaddhafi, King Hussein of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir, and Yasir Arafat. 

But none of these interviews made a splash like the one she conducted on November 20, 1977, in a room at the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem. The interviewees: Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

She interviewed them together, in the tumult of Sadat’s surprise visit to Jerusalem and just after they delivered their addresses to the Knesset. The joint interview was a breakthrough, and Walters later gave a riveting account of how it came about. (Begin told her he had asked Sadat to do it “for the sake of our good friend Barbara,” and Sadat agreed.)

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Walters had scored a scoop. In her memoirs, she called this “the most important interview of my career.” But the answers she got didn’t advance Israel and Egypt toward an agreement by one iota. Walters tried her best, probing for possible concessions from both leaders. “You are always like this, Barbara,” Sadat gently chided her. “Politics cannot be conducted like this.” Her reply: “I have to keep trying.” 

The bonhomie in the room failed to conceal the deep differences between Begin and Sadat, in those earliest days of a negotiation that would last years. Journalism isn’t diplomacy: divergent interests can’t be reconciled by media celebrities operating in the glare of lights. Sadat used Walters, and before her Walter Cronkite (who’d spliced together interviews with Sadat and Begin) to push a distracted Carter administration into action. Once U.S. diplomacy kicked in, the news blackout went up, and even Walters found herself prowling the perimeter of Camp David.

Fraternize? Already?

A footnote to the Knesset interview has been forgotten, but deserves a retelling. The tireless Walters was already on the hunt for her next scoop, and she opened the interview with a series of questions meant to set it up. The exchange went like this:

Walters: After tomorrow, your ambassadors, for example, your two ambassadors in Washington can meet and talk? 

Sadat: Why not? 

Walters: Well, because they never have before. 

Sadat: It has never happened, yes. But, as I said today, we are ready. 

Begin: There shall always be a beginning and I can only express my deep satisfaction at the words uttered by the president. I do hope that, starting from tomorrow, the ambassadors of Egypt and Israel all over the world will give common interviews with journalists and express their opinions and that will apply also to the United Nations. 

(Watch this exchange here, at minute 19:45.)

This back-and-forth confused Egyptian ambassadors all over the world. Sadat’s visit had already plunged Egypt’s foreign ministry into turmoil: the foreign minister, Ismail Fahmy, had resigned two days before the trip. Sadat’s remarks in Jerusalem now deepened the uncertainty, complicated by his answer to another question posed by Walters: “Do you still consider that you are in a state of war?” Sadat: “Unfortunately, yes.”

A “diplomatic source” tried to clarify the situation for the New York Times:

Mr. Sadat’s televised sessions in Jerusalem left Egyptian ambassadors abroad unsure whether they, too, should begin fraternizing with Israeli counterparts. The instructions now emanating from Cairo are that the President’s trip was an exceptional diplomatic maneuver and should not be construed as a signal for warmer contacts.

This did not take into account the dogged determination of Barbara Walters.

Walters counted among her Washington friends the suave Ashraf Ghorbal, Egyptian ambassador and an old pro. A Harvard PhD, he had been in the Egyptian diplomatic service for almost thirty years. He ran the Egyptian interests section in Washington after 1967, did a stint as a security adviser and press spokesperson for Sadat, and returned to Washington as ambassador upon the resumption of U.S.-Egyptian relations in 1974. Ghorbal knew how to roll with the punches. Unlike Fahmy, with whom he had a sharp rivalry, he would stick with Sadat. (Rumors even labelled him a candidate for foreign minister.) But how far would he go? This is what Barbara Walters set out to test.

Who’s coming to dinner?

As soon as Sadat left Jerusalem, she went straight to Ghorbal and to Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Simcha Dinitz, another career pro. Would they agree to be interviewed together on ABC News’s Sunday afternoon weekly, Issues and Answers? A foreign ambassador couldn’t dream of more media exposure than that. 

Dinitz agreed, but Ghorbal demurred. He was prepared to meet Dinitz, but not on television. Fine; would Ghorbal meet Dinitz before an audience? Ghorbal agreed, provided the meeting was off the record.

How could Walters leverage an off-the-record meeting into the talk of the town? Her solution: invite an A-list of officials and media celebrities to dinner. ABC, Walters’ network, booked a banquet room at the Madison Hotel, and she invited fifty people to dinner in honor of the two ambassadors. Yes, it would be off the record, but word would reach all the right people. Perhaps that would set the stage for another scoop. After all, the Israeli-Egyptian show had only just begun.

The list of RSVPs glittered. From the Carter administration: Zbigniew Brzezinski (National Security Advisor), Hamilton Jordan (President Carter’s chief political advisor), and Robert Strauss (U.S. Trade Representative). From the media: Roone Arledge (president of ABC News, and co-host of the dinner), Ben Bradlee (Washington Post editor), Art Buchwald (Washington Post columnist), Sam Donaldson (ABC White House correspondent), Katherine Graham (Washington Post owner), Peter Jennings (ABC chief foreign correspondent), Sally Quinn (Washington Post style reporter), and William Safire (New York Times columnist). From the Hill: Tip O’Neill (House Speaker), Jim Wright (House Majority Leader), and Abe Ribicoff (an influential Jewish senator). From the diplomatic corps: Ardeshir Zahedi (Iran’s flamboyant ambassador). 

And the guest of guests: Henry Kissinger, who as secretary of state in the previous Nixon administration negotiated not one but two military disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt, in 1974 and 1975.

Dinner was served on the evening of December 4. When Kissinger’s turn came to speak, he quipped: “I have not addressed such a distinguished audience since dining alone in the Hall of Mirrors” at Versailles. But the significance of the evening didn’t arise from the toast offered by Kissinger, or the compliments exchanged by Ghorbal and Dinitz (for which there is no record). Rather, it brought some of the Jerusalem pageant to Washington, and made Washington stand up. People Magazine called the dinner “a political and conversational watershed.” William Safire described the atmosphere for readers of the New York Times: “There, in that room, at that moment, not even the most cynical media satrap present could help but be touched by the drama of the beginning of communication between two strong spokesmen of nations that have spent a generation at war.”

Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a “get” for Walters. (That’s the term for landing a big interview.) It was much more of a “give.” The day of the event, the Washington Evening Star ran a gossip piece, describing the planned dinner as a sequel to the carnival of  “media diplomacy” that had unfolded in Cairo and Jerusalem. Walters pushed back: there had been no press release, there would be no broadcast, no ABC cameras, and no diplomacy. “If the dinner could have been held in New York,” she insisted, “I would have had it in my home.” Did the dinner add to her luster? Of course. Did it do anything for her Nielsen ratings? Not a bit.

More than a meal

The dinner had two probable effects. First, it may have helped galvanize the Carter administration into action.

Sadat’s move caught Carter’s people flat-footed. “There’s a general confusion in the Middle East about specifically what we should do next,” Carter wrote in his diary the week after Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. “The same confusion exists in the White House.” The confusion showed at the Madison Hotel fête. Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, lasted through the drinks but left before the dinner. That raised some eyebrows: why didn’t he stay to propose a toast? Jordan, Carter’s political advisor, was reported to have behaved boorishly: he had one too many, and, staring at Mrs. Ghorbal’s bodice, declared: “I always wanted to see the Pyramids.” True or not, the episode sparked a gossip piece in every newspaper and a full-column news story in the New York Times.

The dinner came as one more reminder to the Carter administration that it had to start looking proficient and proactive, and do it fast. The CIA had just produced a profile of Sadat, saying he had a “Barbara Walters syndrome,” meaning a sense of self-importance inflated by the media. But who could blame him? She took him seriously; Carter’s people didn’t. The administration needed to get the peace process into its pipeline (and out of Kissinger’s shadow). The dinner probably accelerated that.

Second, it launched a different kind of show, starring Ashraf Ghorbal and a succession of Israeli ambassadors. Off-the-record went out the window: Sadat wanted to persuade American Jews to back Israeli concessions, and Begin wanted fast normalization. How to do both? Get the affable Ghorbal in front of American Jewish audiences, in an all-smiles show of camaraderie with Israel’s ambassador. 

So the Ghorbal-and-Dinitz show went on the road, to synagogues and banquet halls. The biggest encore took place a year after the Walters dinner, at an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) luncheon for 250 guests in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. Kissinger delivered his one-liners, Ghorbal and Dinitz talked peace, and Barbara Walters (along with news anchors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor) received ADL awards for giving “enormous impetus and thrust to the peace process between Israel and Egypt.” The applause must have been thunderous.

In March 1980, the show finally reached America’s big top. Carter had earned the right to play host, having personally hammered out the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel the previous year. To mark the first anniversary of his triumph, he summoned Ghorbal and Ephraim Evron (who’d replaced Dinitz on the Israeli side) to a celebratory reception held in the Grand Entrance Hall of the White House. Carter gave the keynote, and the two ambassadors spoke their well-rehearsed parts. 

Diplomacy and spectacle

“We’ve been like Siamese twins,” Evron said of his many appearances with Ghorbal. “The public was intrigued by it.” Keeping the public intrigued was part of the process. Most of this fell on Ghorbal: by the time he finished in Washington, Dinitz and Evron had been followed by two more Israeli ambassadors. Ghorbal finally retired in 1984. The Washington Post remarked that “the joint appearances of Ghorbal and a succession of Israeli diplomats serving here during the past six years have been one of Washington’s enduring spectacles.” It endured because it was in the Egyptian interest. Ghorbal, like Sadat, understood that if you wanted to get something from Israel, complaining to the White House and the State Department would only take you so far. You had to charm American Jews, an art that Ghorbal perfected.

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What he really thought of it all is hard to say. In his Arabic memoirs, written twenty years into his retirement, he didn’t mention any of it. By then, most of his Egyptian readers probably would have viewed all this elbow-rubbing and glad-handing with Israelis and Jews as bordering on the treasonous. But he did his professional duty, and he did it well.

Barbara Walters went beyond hers. Books on the secret diplomacy behind the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal fill shelves. It’s hard to find even one serious article on the marketing of that peace. When that story finally gets written, Walters should get her own chapter. Naturally, pride of place will go to the famous dual interview in Jerusalem. But perhaps the dinner in Washington left the more lasting legacy. “This was, believe me, a major event,” Walters wrote in her memoirs. “Even today the Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors are rarely at the same dinner.” Indeed, and at this distance in time, it’s all the more extraordinary.

Martin Kramer is the Walter P. Stern fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is writing a book on influential ambassadors from the Middle East.

The (sad) state of Middle Eastern studies

Last month in Washington, I delivered the keynote address to the fifteenth annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). This is the scholarly organization founded by two of my teachers, both departed: Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. In offering these remarks, I honored my mentors, and hopefully enlightened my colleagues.

I spoke about the state of Middle Eastern studies, a subject dear to me. Among other topics, I covered (double) standards, politicization, boycotts, and foreign money. Above all, I explained why ASMEA is now the only scholarly society in America for the study of the Middle East. Its competitor, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), has run off the rails into the abyss of political advocacy. I prove it with examples.

Watch the entire address at this link or below. (34 minutes.)

Photo: Yours truly (right) with Mark T. Clark, president of ASMEA.

Israel boycotters convene in Denver

As you read this, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference, the first since its membership passed a resolution calling for the academic boycott of Israeli universities. These universities, so the resolution claims, are “imbricated” by “their provision of direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments.” The vote was 768 to 167, a lopsided count reminiscent of referenda held in parts of the Middle East.

MESA, in its conference, will deliberate on what the boycott means in practice. One can find a preview in a 2014 boycott letter signed by “Middle East studies scholars and librarians.” The signers pledged “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” 

This will now become the policy of MESA, and while MESA’s leaders will disavow any intention to enforce it, the resolution will have a chilling effect. The sanctions are most threatening not to Israel’s high-powered and innovative universities, but to vulnerable American scholars and students (many of them Jewish) who would like to join conferences and programs in Israel, but fear being stigmatized.

It is ironic that an association for the study of the Middle East should boycott the freest universities in the Middle East. According to the Academic Freedom Index, 2022, Israel is the only country in the Middle East to earn “A” status for academic freedom.

For comparison, Tunisia earns a “B,” Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon receive a “C,” while Jordan, Libya, and Sudan earn a “D.” Most of the other countries in the Middle East get an “E,” including Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. (The Palestinian Authority, operating under the “yoke” of Israel, scores a “B.” Israel must not be all that effective in suppressing academic freedom there.) In fact, Israel’s score is higher than those of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

If MESA really cared about academic freedom in the Middle East, it would hold up Israeli universities as models to the region. Instead, these are the only universities MESA thinks deserve to be boycotted. I see that later this month, Noam Chomsky will be participating (via Zoom) in a course at Tel Aviv University. Even he isn’t as extreme as the boycotters who now rule the roost at MESA.

I imagine there are hundreds of people in MESA who recoil at this sort of politicization, and think it is a travesty. But I only imagine it, because they haven’t spoken up. Where are the scholars with the courage of their convictions? The majority of MESA’s members didn’t cast a vote in the boycott referendum. Do they think that is sufficient? Do they believe that such self-imposed silence is a counter-weight to the boycott vote? 

If so, they delude themselves. In the words of Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” That’s why the center of Middle Eastern studies hasn’t held, and I fault not the militants, but those others who failed to stand their ground. They allowed an association founded with high scholarly purpose, built with sweat over decades, to be hijacked by rabid Israel-haters who have shackled it to their agenda. MESA is meeting in Denver. Perhaps next year it should meet in Damascus, out in Syria. MESA has become a place not where the Middle East is studied, but where the worst of it is replicated.

This is also the moment to question those American universities that are complicit in this ban on the freest universities in the Middle East. There are still Middle East centers, some subsidized by taxpayers, that are institutional members of MESA. A few even sponsor panels and throw parties at the annual conference. They should rethink, not because there will be consequences, but because it’s morally obtuse. 

These days, MESA is headquartered at George Washington University, to which MESA migrated after its boycott politics got it thrown off another campus. It’s a blemish on the name of the university, not just because MESA managed to infiltrate the campus, but because GWU’s administration knows that MESA is toxic, yet hasn’t acted. (In contrast, praise is due to the Association for Israel Studies, which terminated its affiliation with MESA, and the Crown Center at Brandeis University, which dropped its institutional membership. A few other centers have let their memberships lapse, without making a fuss about it.)

Last month, I participated in the fifteenth annual conference of ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, co-founded by two departed giants, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. In Lewis’s memoirs, he wrote that the purpose of ASMEA was “to counter the straitjackets of MESA,” and “to provide a platform and a medium for ideas and opinions that deviate from currently enforced orthodoxy.” 

At ASMEA’s inaugural conference in 2008, scholars presented nineteen papers. In the 2022 conference, they presented more than 130. ASMEA doesn’t yet match MESA for size, but MESA has been around since 1966. More to the point, ASMEA’s membership is growing, while MESA’s membership, both institutional and individual, is in decline.

ASMEA is the true heir to the liberal, open-minded mission for Middle Eastern studies first defined by the founders of MESA—a mission cast overboard by their radicalized successors. This leaves ASMEA the only scholarly association for the study of the Middle East in America. What’s called MESA has become a political advocacy group. 

This may seem to you a brash assertion. I believe it will come to be acknowledged as fact in the fullness of time. 

Photo credit: Rally to boycott Israel, Columbus, Ohio, summer 2021, photo by Paul Becker/Becker1999, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0