Ken Stein, March 18, 2020
In writing history, documents and primary texts are reliably accurate, especially when the researcher has corroborative information from multiple sources. Veracity can emerge by crosschecking sources, whereas using a single source can be problematic. However, if all we have is one shard of pottery from the second temple period, we must settle for it in isolation as evidence of how the pottery was constructed, its composition, use, etc. Unless of course, we are fortunate enough to have a text that describes the pottery piece, and we have the piece of pottery as evidence. When oral recollections are used to bolster the written text, subtle shades and emphatic dimensions provide colorful detail to historical writing. Unlike written records, oral evidence provides vignettes, opinions, hues, suppositions, and sentiments almost always absent in a document. However, oral evidence alone can be misleading. It can be polemical and entirely self-serving.
While collecting archival information for my first book, The Land Question in Palestine 1917-1939 (UNC, 1984), I relied almost entirely on Arabic, English, German and Hebrew source materials—documents, diaries, transcripts of important meetings, dispatches, reams of published data, and nary an oral source. In writing my second major monograph, Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter, Begin and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, (Routledge, 1999), I was able to combine memoirs, diaries, scholarly monographs, and autobiographies with minimal amounts of source items accessed through the Freedom of Information Act, and with a wonderfully revealing set of personal recollections from 84 oral interviews.
Up until the early 2000’s, almost all of our understanding of how Arab-Israeli diplomacy transpired emanated from autobiographies or memoirs. Memoirs or autobiographies by major political leaders – Cyrus Vance, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Moshe Dayan, and Ezer Weizman have dominated the historiography of the conflict. Menachem Begin never wrote a memoir that was published; Moshe Dayan’s memoir was only published in English, and Joe Sisco who worked with Kissinger in the early 1970’s wrote his memoir but never published it. Several Egyptian Foreign Ministers, Ismail Fahmy, Muhammad Ibrahim Kamel, and Butros Ghali wrote their memoirs, capturing their respective views of Sadat and level of disagreement in the negotiating process with Israel. Some diplomats and bureaucrats associated with 1970’s diplomacy wrote wonderful lengthy articles and essays. No person contributed more to shaping our views of the 1970’s negotiating process than did Jimmy Carter. As the center of Egyptian-Israeli diplomacy, he captured public and media attention. Critically, after he left office in 1981, his public presentations and writings reinforced an American-centric dominated view that placed the blame on Israel for not achieving more than an Egyptian-Israeli Treaty. He wrote his memoir Keeping Faith (1982). Over the next four decades, he wrote five additional books and a dozen op-ed articles about the stalemate in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. No sitting or former president was more consumed with resolving the conflict than Carter. His memory of who said what to whom, and what transpired was crystal clear when I had my first three-hour meeting with him about the Camp David talks at Sapelo Island Georgia in the summer of 1982. Over the next decade, Carter’s recollections of the details in the negotiations slowly faded. He constantly relied more and more on what he had written in Keeping Faith as his guideposts for subsequent writings. He repackaged that content with different language and with ever so increasingly strident conclusions about Israel’s Menachem Begin for not moving forward with the negotiations. I learned in the mid-1980’s, after dozens of conversations with him, that an essential factor in his views of Israel rested with the deep sense that “if American Jews had not abandoned him in the 1980 presidential election, he would have defeated Ronald Reagan.”
With this and other revelations, I learned firsthand from Carter that memoirs do not include essential information. It was my experience with him from 1982 through the 1990’s—working at the Carter Center of Emory University and in meeting others in Middle Eastern capitals, Washington and elsewhere—that there were intimate stories and fascinating takes on history to be harnessed if interviews could be arranged with those who participated in the diplomacy. From 1985 onward, I made a conscious effort to assemble my own interviews and other oral evidence. My interviews were with Americans, Egyptians, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Russians, and UN officials who had been associated with the diplomacy of the 1970’s. Substantive content emerged from each interview. Each gave me permission to use the interviews in research and make them available to others. Commentary on who did and did not get along with whom and why inevitably was revealed: Brzezinski-Vance, Golda Meir-Abba Eban, Sadat and his advisers, and the strained but respectful Dayan-Carter relationship. The interviews revealed which high-level bureaucrats in the Carter administration for example were frozen out of a policy ploy to trick Begin into a concession; the interviews all revealed nuance, color, unfolded marvelous stories, and personal assessments. Once a person started talking and had their memories jogged, wonderful recollections resulted. There were some stunning surprises and eye-opening stories.
After giving a public talk at a think tank in Cairo in January 1993, a rather short man in his sixties approached me and asked whether in doing my research on Arab-Israeli negotiations if I wanted to speak to him. I had no idea who approached me. I told him I had to go to Alexandria for the day and would be back at my Cairo hotel at eight in the evening, “could he meet me then?” He was there promptly at eight and after he introduced himself, we sat with the tape recorder going until 12:15 in the morning. He spoke candidly, and he repeatedly asked if I understood all that he was telling me about Anwar Sadat’s communications with Henry Kissinger in February and April 1973. This incredibly candid interview with Hafez Ismail, Sadat’s National Security Adviser was totally unexpected and remarkable for how I came to understand Sadat’s interest in testing the waters for quiet Egyptian-Israeli negotiations prior to the October 1973 War. Ismail told me about Sadat’s views toward the Soviets and how he disparaged them but had to use them in setting the stage for the October 1973 War. When I interviewed David Korn—who served in Tel Aviv for four years in the late 1960’s, worked at the State Department at the Arab-Israeli desk in the early 1970’s and travelled with Roy Atherton and Cy Vance to the Middle East in the 1977-1979 period—he insisted that I include a story in Heroic Diplomacy about Kissinger’s unrestrained ego. Kissinger standing on the sixth floor of the Sheraton in Damascus in December 1973, just prior to meeting President Assad, unabashedly told Korn, “my experience in the Vietnam talks has prepared me to solve Arab-Israeli differences.”
When he characterized Menachem Begin in his memoir, Power and Principle (1983), Carter’s former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski found Israeli Prime Minister Begin to be a difficult negotiator, but in his interview with me, Brzezinski called Begin “duplicitous,” a term not found in the memoir. Hearing the same conclusions from three ideologically different Israelis, Dan Pattir (media adviser to Rabin and Begin), Shlomo Avineri (Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry for Yigal Allon), and Eliyahu Ben-Elisar, (head of Begin’s office), they expressed their firm belief that Carter’s harsh actions and statements against Israel and the Rabin government in early 1977 helped lead to the Israeli Labor Party’s defeat and Menachem Begin’s election victory in May 1977. Nowhere did I find that conclusion in the Brzezinski, Carter or Vance memoirs. In other words, Carter did not pay attention then to the fact that his public remarks might result in a totally unanticipated political outcome in Israel. Carter would later tell any number of interviewers that he simply did not consider that his public statements would have such a telling impact on Israel, or on the American Jewish community. Blending written sources and oral ones together or using multiple oral sources that corroborate a view has made for me, and I hope for the readers of these interviews, a richer understanding of this diplomatic history. For what it is worth, I am certain that in my work, I only used 30% of the revelations in these more than 150 hours of interviews.
Only in 2010 and afterwards, did thousands of pages of diplomatic records from the 1970s Arab-Israeli negotiations become available: from the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series on the Near East and the conflict, and through Hebrew documents opened at the Israel State Archives (ISA). Anyone who wishes to have access to FRUS or to the ISA material, need only go online. The reality was that by 2010 many of the players in the diplomacy had passed away; all I had from many of them were the transcripts of their oral interviews. Now there were documents to blend with their personal recollections.
What will appear in this section of the website will be some of the 84 interviews that I conducted in writing Heroic Diplomacy. There are an abundance of other materials listed here that include conference proceedings and other interviews housed at institutions and libraries. Three are worth noting here: in 1997, “Sadat and His Legacy Egypt and the World,” was assembled and released by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In 2003, “Camp David 25th Anniversary Retrospective” was sponsored by The Woodrow Wilson Center. And of enormous value are the interviews of hundreds of former US diplomats completed by the the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. These US ambassadors and other State Department officials, unlike most government officials who worked at the National Security Council, provided interviews that read like play-by-play excursions into the day-to-day decision-making processes, successes and failures of Arab-Israeli diplomacy.
Finally, let me thank the many people who helped assemble the transcript collection over three decades. I am deeply grateful to many of my staff at Emory College and at the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel (ISMI). Special appreciation is extended to Diane Rieger who initiated the first transcriptions, and later Heather Waters, Eli Sperling, Jacob Zack, Michele Freesman and the dozens of our undergraduate student interns who transcribed, read, and copy-edited the transcripts with me. Each student intern exercised great patience in making sense of unknown names, foreign places and sometimes less than easily intelligible accents. The transcripts provided all of us rich content for discussions, source material for Master’s and Honor’s theses, and an occasional lecture. Until now, none of the transcript collection was available for general use. In using the transcripts, all we ask is that one cite the person interviewed, the date of the interview, the full collection name, and the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) where it was found. I hope you enjoy the interviews as much as I have benefitted from them over the years.