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.

Will the real founders please stand up?

Here are three photographs, of three Israelis casting ballots in Israel’s first elections in January 1949. 

To the left is Chaim Weizmann, the elder statesman of Zionism, who helped defeat the Uganda Plan in 1903, who secured the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and who won Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948. As he casts his ballot, he is 74 years old, and he is the first president of Israel.

In the middle is David Ben-Gurion, a pioneer who settled in Palestine in 1906, who for forty years steeled the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine against Arab violence and British royal commissions, and who declared Israel’s independence and founded the Israel Defense Forces in 1948. As he casts his ballot, he is 62 years of age, and he is the first prime minister of Israel.

To the right is Menachem Begin, who had commanded the Irgun (or Etzel) underground following his arrival in Palestine in 1942. His most notable achievements (at this point): in 1946 and 1947, he planned attacks on British troops including the bombing of the King David Hotel and the retaliatory hanging of two British sergeants. As he casts his ballot, he is 35 years old, and in this first election, the party he leads will finish in fourth place.

Who among these three men deserves to be called a “founder of Israel”? One could be generous and include all three, satisfying everyone. But would that be historically accurate? If not, where should the line be drawn? I answered that question to my own satisfaction in a debate over at Mosaic. Last week I posted the text of my argument. Now, if you prefer, you can watch me make it below.

Menachem Begin, a founder of Israel?

On July 13, Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver convened a discussion of the question of how Menachem Begin relates to Israel’s founding. I joined Begin biographer Avi Shilon and Begin admirer Rabbi Meir Soloveichik in debate. You can view and read the entire exchange at this link. Below, my opening case for why Begin shouldn’t be counted among Israel’s founders.

Who were the founders of Israel? The most evocative description may be found in Amos Elon’s 1971 book The Israelis: Founders and Sons. Elon opened with a description of Israel’s twentieth-anniversary parade in 1968, the first after the Six-Day War. He described the aged men and women in the VIP reviewing stand:

Their skins are parched, their taut faces lined by deep furrows, their heads snow-white or bald. They are now stooped, burned out by the fires of their youth, and yet surrounded by the sovereign power of a nation which half a century before had been but a figment of their wild imagination.

David Ben-Gurion, at that point past eighty, was among them. These were the founders, and this was their moment of triumph. And with rare exceptions, all their work was well behind them.

On that day, Menachem Begin’s great successes (and failures) were still well ahead of him. So should we regard him as a founder of the state of Israel? My answer to that question is “no.” I grasp the need of a huge segment of the Israeli public to have a hero present at the founding in 1948. So it is politic to call Begin a founder. But as history, it isn’t accurate, for two reasons.

The first argument is almost too simple: Begin didn’t belong to the founding generation. The founders were born in the 1880s or 1890s. They came mostly from Russia before or just after the First World War. By 1948, when Israel declared independence, they had spent much if not most of their lives in Eretz Israel.

In 1948, Ben-Gurion was already the “Old Man,” ha-Zaken, age sixty-one. He had been in the land for 42 years. The founder of the Haganah and the Palmach, Yitzhak Sadeh, was fifty-seven. He had been in the country for 28 years. Already in 1948, both Ben-Gurion, with his tufts of white hair, and Sadeh, with his flowing white beard, looked like ancient prophets. So did many of the founders.

Thanks to their efforts, a Jewish state existed years before it was declared. When they arrived in the land, the number of Jews hovered between 60,000 to 100,000, far too few to constitute a state in any configuration. Even to imagine Jewish sovereignty, the would-be founders had to settle immigrants, lay out cities, build collective farms, pave roads, drain swamps, bring electricity—and, on top of that, establish democratic political institutions and an army-in-waiting. The prospect of statehood rested squarely on these foundations.

Twenty years after the Balfour Declaration, much of that work had been done. So concluded the British Royal Commission Report of 1937:

[The Jewish Agency] has created a complete administrative apparatus. This powerful and effective organization amounts, in fact, to a Government existing side-by-side with the Mandatory Government.

Even before the Second World War, this “powerful” apparatus governed and defended the lives of half a million Jews.

So what of Menachem Begin? He only arrived in Palestine in 1942, at the age of twenty-nine. A few years later, when Israel declared independence, he had been in the country all of six years, most of them in hiding. He was only thirty-four. (By the way, the average age of the signers of Israel’s declaration of independence was fifty-three.) In relation to the real founders, he was a new immigrant, a young upstart, and an underground shadow.

Begin in fact belonged to the next generation—not the founders, but what I would call the builders. Most of them were born in the decade around the First World War, some already in Eretz Israel. Many became commanders in 1948. Here is the cluster, with birthdates.

  • 1911: Yisrael Galili, builder of the Haganah.
  • 1912: Isser Harel, builder of the Mossad.
  • 1913: Menachem Begin, builder of Etzel (also known as the Irgun).
  • 1915: Moshe Dayan, builder of the IDF.
  • 1915: Abba Eban, builder of the foreign service.
  • 1915: Yitzhak Shamir, builder of Lehi.
  • 1917: Yigael Yadin, builder of the IDF.
  • 1918: Yigal Allon, builder of the Palmach.
  • 1918: Chaim Herzog, builder of IDF intelligence.

All of these people were in the cradle when the founders were lobbying Lord Balfour, fighting in the Jewish Legion, or settling Tel Hai. They were the disciples and successors of the true founders.

Begin was also a disciple and successor to a founder: Vladimir Jabotinsky. Certainly that is how Begin saw himself. The fact that Jabotinsky died too soon, in 1940, didn’t catapult Begin into the position of a founder in his place. There was simply an empty leadership gap, in the 32 years in age that separated Jabotinsky from Begin, and in the twelve years during which neither was in the country.

So much for simple chronology, although it should suffice. Let me now come to my second argument. Yes, someone might say, Begin was a latecomer. But the Etzel under his command drove the British out of Palestine. By acts of violent resistance, the Etzel broke the British will to stay in Palestine. Surely that makes Begin a founder.

Did the Etzel (and Lehi) drive the British from Palestine? Here we are in the realm of interpretation. The evidence doesn’t lie in the stories we tell ourselves, or in histories of the Etzel, or in studies of terrorism. The evidence lies in British archives, as interpreted by historians of the British empire.

My own sense, from reading them, is that the British weren’t nearly that fragile. They did not come to rule a quarter of humankind by being squeamish about taking casualties. They had just lost almost 400,000 fighting men, not only to defeat Hitler but to preserve the British empire.

They had also lost 70,000 civilians. Ben-Gurion visited London at the start of the Blitz. This is what he wrote: “I am dumbfounded by the inner confidence of this wonderful nation. It is as if nothing can shock it and nothing undermines its faith.” For which, in 1942, the entire Yishuv praised God when the British Eighth Army turned back Rommel in the Egyptian desert.

It is hard to prove that the battle-hardened Great Britain of those days was driven out of Palestine by some bombs and assassinations. At least these don’t loom large in British internal debates. What did loom large was the problem of Jewish refugees. The British worried that if Jewish refugees were allowed to enter Palestine under the Union Jack, the British position in the Arab world would collapse.

Yet pressure was building to allow just that, especially from America. Torn between Americans and Arabs, the British chose to leave Palestine to the UN. That still left them with Suez, the oil, and their bases in Arab lands, while preserving their “special relationship” with America.

The heroism of Begin and his comrades in taking on the British empire is undeniable. And the idea that the British lion ran off before a handful of resolute Jews gave much-needed pride to many other Jews, post-Holocaust. But with the perspective of time, is it solid history? The kindest one can say is: unproven.

I will conclude with this speculation. If Ben-Gurion had died at the age of sixty-three, how would he be remembered today? That would have been 1949—after the declaration of the state. It’s obvious he would still be revered today as the founder of modern Israel.

And if Begin had died at age sixty-three? I didn’t choose that age at random. In April 1977, the sixty-three-year-old Begin suffered a massive heart attack. This was a few weeks before the electoral “upheaval” which finally took him to the premiership. He was too ill to campaign. Assume, for argument’s sake, that he hadn’t survived that heart attack. How would he be remembered today?

I submit we would recall him as a bit player in the lead-up to 1948, and as a failed politician thereafter. Which is to say that his greatness lay not in what came before 1948 or before 1977, but what came after. That is when he forged ahead to Israel’s first and most important peace agreement, his most lasting legacy.

Indeed, if there are two photographs that frame Israel’s rise in the world, it is Ben-Gurion declaring independence at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1948, and Begin in 1979 in a three-way handshake on the White House lawn with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and American president Jimmy Carter.

Which is to say that Begin wasn’t a founder of Israel. But he deserves to be remembered and revered as the builder of peace.