The Play's the Thing

Lawrence Wright's "Camp David" brilliantly depicts the famous 1978 peace summit -- and reveals why there's no hope in the current Israeli-Palestinian talks.

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.



Everything You Need to Know to Talk About Inequality

Why Thomas Piketty's capital gulf gets a bit complicated when you look at the numbers.

Inequality in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere has become a hot topic since the global economic downturn highlighted the stark differences between rich and poor. Thomas Piketty's widely-reviewed (and, to hear him tell it, widely misunderstood) best-selling book has illustrated just how wide the disparities are in income and wealth. His data show that the gaps are at their widest since the waning days of the Gilded Age, which was not capitalism's finest hour. But how much these gaps really matter in practice is a bit more complicated.  

Which inequality are we talking about?

The term inequality is often used without specifying what is being measured or how. For example, income inequality and wealth inequality are distinct; one measures an annual flow, and the other a quantity at some point in time. Which one you care about may depend on the costs and benefits of each kind. I happen to think wealth inequality is more important because it's more likely to determine your access to economic opportunities, but intelligent people can differ on this point.

Measures of income inequality can also give different results. One might compare the incomes of the top 10 percent to the bottom 10 percent, while another might use a calculation like a Gini coefficient that looks at the entire distribution. Here, the choice of metric is more philosophical; you might care more about the difference between the richest and poorest people in your country than you do about what happens in between, or vice versa.

What are the benefits and costs of inequality?

Inequality is a fundamental part of the capitalist system, at least as viewed by economists. The possibility of earning different incomes and accumulating different levels of wealth gives people incentives to work hard and realize their productive potential. In theory, this makes the pie bigger for everyone, even if it's not shared completely evenly.

But inequality also has costs, as recent research has begun to suggest. If money plays a role in the allocation of opportunity, then inequality may make it more likely that a rich, stupid kid gets a chance -- say, a place at an elite university -- that would have been better exploited by a poor, smart kid. Moreover, there are probably social costs to huge disparities in wealth. Even if the people at the bottom enjoy a decent standard of living in absolute terms, the contrasts with the lifestyles of rich may lead to resentment, unrest, or worse. And that's a big "if." Here, in the supposedly wealthy United States, there are still millions of kids who experience hunger sometime during the year.

The overall relationship between inequality and average living standards probably looks something like the curve proposed by Arthur Laffer for tax rates and tax revenue. If you have complete equality, then living standards may fall short of their maximum, since people will have less incentive to work. If you have complete inequality -- that is, all wealth in the hands of one person -- then everyone else is stuck once more with the same wealth: nothing. As essentially slaves, their incentives to be productive will be just as bad, unless there's some chance they could be that one person at the top in the future. In fact, both extremes look a lot like North Korea, which isn't exactly an economic heavyweight.

Is there any scientific evidence for these relationships between inequality and living standards?

Anecdotally, the rapid growth in post-socialist economies suggests that too little inequality may indeed have been a problem. But, according to the International Monetary Fund, extreme inequality can also detract from economic growth. It may also be the case that changes in inequality are associated with lower growth rates, perhaps because of the disruptions that can cause or accompany the changes themselves. Every economy almost certainly has a peak in its inequality Laffer curve, that is, the level of inequality where living standards are at their highest, all other things equal. We just don't know where it is yet.

If inequality is bad, what can we do about it?

There are quite a few options, but for me they all fall into two categories. First are policies that make inequality irrelevant to opportunity in society. These include efforts to improve early childhood education, nutrition for poor children, and access to the admissions process at top colleges; the idea in each case is to make sure every kid has a chance to be evaluated on his or her merits. This category also includes initiatives to reduce the influence of money in politics, so that even poor candidates would have a shot. Doing so might make the electoral process more meritocratic and economically efficient, compared to the current situation where wealth can seem like a prerequisite for mounting a campaign. Some of these policies can take effect quickly, but others -- especially those aimed mainly at kids -- could take a generation or more to make a dent in inequality.

Options in the second category attack inequality directly. Among these are progressive taxes on income and wealth. They're always controversial, since their objective may appear to be bringing people at the top of the economic totem pole down, rather than lifting the bottom up. On the other hand, they can change the distributions of income and wealth much more quickly.

All of these policies seek to reduce the economic distortions that come with inequality. But it's worth thinking about how these policies might create new distortions along the way. Programs for children cost money, and tax rates would have to rise to pay for them. Progressive income and wealth taxes may distort decisions about working and saving, though it's not clear which are worse in this respect. My own proposal tries to reduce these distortions with a hybrid tax on both income and wealth that uses a sliding scale for rates.

What's the bottom line?

The recent surge of interest in inequality is healthy for the global economy, as well as for Piketty's book sales. Even as inequality diminishes between countries, it's rising within many around the world. It will be useful to know how much inequality may hurt our living standards in the long term, and whether the possible remedies might be just as costly. Stay tuned.

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