Media Played Role in '70s Mideast Peace Process

Walter Cronkite recalls his own role in what turned out to be a breakthrough in the Middle East. In 1977, when Cronkite was anchor of the CBS Evening News, he helped bring together Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachin Begin, in meetings that laid the groundwork for the 1978 Camp David agreements.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Secretary Rice's trip to the Middle East provides us with a good time to look back nearly 30 years, to a moment when the prospects for peace suddenly grew brighter. Egypt and Israel reached out to each other through an American news broadcast. Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, startled the world when he offered to visit Israeli prime minister, Menachim Begin. His offer and Begin's acceptance, both on television, broke a 30-year stalemate in Arab-Israeli relations. And it led directly to a peace settlement that has served both sides ever since.

Our commentator and former CBS Television anchorman, Walter Cronkite, found himself a central figure in that dialogue.

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE (Journalist): The terms of a settlement seem simple and clear. It was the human factors that complicated things - pride, politics and power. What was needed was for someone to drop a handkerchief, a moment of opportunity that would permit the parties both movement and cover.

In 1977, I found myself playing that role in what would become the first direct exchange between Egypt and Israel.

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Good evening. Not since the founding of the modern state of Israel - not as far as we know - has a leader of Israel met with a leader of Egypt. But now, all obstacles appear to have been removed for peace discussions in Jerusalem between Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin. It happened this way, earlier today, in CBS News interviews with the two leaders. Those CBS interviews would make the news process itself an active diplomatic channel

Shortly after wrapping the CBS Evening News one Friday, we learned a Canadian delegation in Cairo was saying that Sadat was planning a trip to Israel. It came too late for our broadcast and was still only a rumor. But by Sunday, no reporter had bothered to ask him the most obvious question: when would he go to Israel?

Monday the 14th, the rush was on to get Sadat before a camera. We contacted his office and told our Cairo bureau to arrange a satellite link, in which I could question him from New York.

Sadat was as eager as I was, and by mid-morning, I saw his familiar face come up live on the monitor in our CBS newsroom. I asked him about preconditions for an Israeli visit, and he started rattling off the familiar list of Arab demands. It sounded like the denial I expected. To make certain, I asked him again if these were his conditions for going to Israel.

Sadat said no, they were his conditions for peace. He was ready to go to Israel anytime. I took a deep breath. A routine interview had become a potentially historic breakthrough.

President ANWAR AL-SADAT (Egypt): I'm just waiting for the proper invitation.

Mr. CRONKITE: And how would that be transmitted, sir, since you do not have diplomatic relations with Israel?

President SADAT: Oh, why through our mutual friends, the Americans.

Mr. CRONKITE: If you get that formal invitation, how soon are you prepared to go?

President SADAT: Really, I'm looking forward to fulfill this visit in the earliest time possible.

Mr. CRONKITE: That could be, say, within a week?

President SADAT: You can say that, yes.

Mr. CRONKITE: Would you also engage in substantive discussion?

President SADAT: I mean, exchange of views or so, with Begin. Yes, because as I told you (unintelligible), this is my initiative.

Mr. CRONKITE: We now had Sadat on film, accepting an invitation that had not been offered. My producer, Bud Benjamin(ph), told our Tel-Aviv bureau manager, Joel Bernstein, to track down Begin for a response.

Late that afternoon, I was on a phone line talking to the Israeli prime minister. Interviews with the leaders of Egypt and Israel…

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Mr. CRONKITE: …were conducted via satellite to Cairo and Tel-Aviv. I talked first with Egypt's Sadat, and asked him about his offer to discuss peace in Jerusalem… -

Mr. CRONKITE: That was the portion we led with that night. Then we cut to Begin for his answer.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Prime Minister MENACHIM BEGIN (Israel): And I will, during the week, transmit a letter from me to President Sadat, inviting him formally and cordially, through the good offices of the United States, to come to Jerusalem.

Mr. CRONKITE: With that, Begin reversed 30 years of Arab-Israeli history. I asked him when he would take the necessary steps to move this new peace initiative…

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Mr. CRONKITE: …from long-distance dialogue to a person-to-person meeting.

Prime Minister BEGIN: Tomorrow, I will make a statement in our parliament, in the afternoon. But I can assure you, Mr. Cronkite, as we really want the visit of President Sadat.

Mr. CRONKITE: Are there any preconditions under which you will be inviting him?

Prime Minister BEGIN: No preconditions. And I understand that also, President Sadat hasn't put forward any preconditions.

Mr. CRONKITE: When I told him that Sadat was prepared to come within a week, he seemed surprised at the swiftness of it all, but his political instincts told him he could not be the one to stall events.

(Soundbite of archived news report)

Mr. CRONKITE: He hinted to me, this morning, that he thought it might be possible that he would be going to Israel, if the invitation was forthcoming, within a week or so. Do you think that's realistic?

Former Prime Minister BEGIN: Very good news. Well, if President Sadat is ready to come next week, I will have to postpone my trip to Britain, but…

Mr. CRONKITE: Never in my career had I watched so many formalities swept aside so fast. The next morning, the papers were hailing CBS News as a force of media diplomacy. Time magazine talked of Cronkite's coup.

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Unidentified Man #1: This is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and Bob Schieffer in our newsroom in New York.

Mr. CRONKITE: Sadat did not delay. He announced he would go to Israel the following Saturday, and the rush of the world press to meet him there was on.

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Mr. CRONKITE: Good evening. (Unintelligible) dramatic stories, a precedent-shattering trip, and also a very busy one, including…

Mr. CRONKITE: Monday morning, it was all over, and I returned to Cairo at Sadat's side. He concluded his historic 43-hour mission

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Mr. CRONKITE: …to Jerusalem this afternoon and flew back here to Cairo, to a welcome by perhaps a million of his people, greeting him like a conquering hero.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. CRONKITE: But what Sadat had conquered is far more uncertain than their greeting…

Mr. CRONKITE: What Sadat had conquered would not happen overnight, but his evening news encounter with Begin set in motion events that would lead to Camp David in 1979, a famous handshake at the White House and a Nobel Peace Prize. As for Cronkite diplomacy, I'm sure that it initiated nothing the two principals were not already prepared to undertake. If I dropped the strategic handkerchief, they chose the time and manner of picking it up.

But the openness of television offered a powerful incentive that secret diplomacy did not. The political consequences of a public failure improved the ultimate chances of diplomatic success, and statesmen willing to fail publicly are a courageous lot.

(Soundbite of archived newscast)

Mr. CRONKITE: No, an unqualified success it was not. But this can be said, and it's no small achievement. The expressions of friendship makes it more difficult for either side to press the button launching a new war. And that's the way it is Monday, November 21, 1977.

Mr. CRONKITE: Whatever unfolds in the present dispute between Israel and Palestine will not be decided by fate or biblical prophecy. It will happen because men choose the outcome, just as Sadat and Begin did three decades ago. For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.