Fourteen days in July
By Lewis Schrager
Directed by Barry Feinstein
Presented by the Theatrical Mining Company through August 31
The Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 has become a major talking point in the never-ending debate about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people—a debate that never really dies down, but has been especially pointed in recent weeks, with another deadly flare-up of war in Gaza.
In the eyes of many Israelis and their supporters, the summit marks a moment when Israel, encouraged by U.S. President Bill Clinton, offered the Palestinians "everything they wanted" in order to end the conflict, and Yasser Arafat said, "No." But many Palestinians claim the Israelis in fact offered them relatively little in exchange for giving up longstanding claims to much of the disputed land.
Either way you look at it, the summit marked the closest Israel and the Palestinians have gotten to a comprehensive agreement in decades, arguably since the founding of Israel in 1948. Two months after the summit failed, Palestinians launched the second intifada in response to Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mount, and a year later the hawkish Israeli became prime minister, allied with new U.S. President George W. Bush.
"Fourteen Days in July," which local playwright Lewis Schrager adapted from "The Missing Peace," U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross' book describing the summit, gives a detailed description of the events of those two weeks from the American perspective. The Theatrical Mining Company production had long been scheduled to be part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival this month, but recent events give it extra power: With so much death and destruction, it's tantalizing to imagine how much different things might be if the talks succeeded—a possibility that seemed very real at the time.
The play is staged in an appropriately claustrophic room in Notre Dame of Maryland University's LeClerc Hall, with three frequently used entrances, one each draped with American, Israeli, and Palestinian flags. The play opens with the first of several monologues from Dennis Ross (John Robert Wright), the indefatigable American Sisyphus, a diplomat tasked through several U.S. administrations with pushing the rock of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal up an impossible hill. This play is his story, his perspective on events—colored not only with his monologues but with unintentionally awkward phone conversations with his wife Debbie (Robin Zerbe).
After the monologue, the American team, including Ross, Clinton (Ron Zyna), Madeline Albright (Mary Jane Oelke), and a hilariously foul-mouthed Sandy Berger (Richard Doran) are shown meeting before the summit to discuss strategy. It's a squirm-worthy scene for anyone with even basic knowledge of the situation to sit through, as they give overly general comments—presumably for the benefit of audiences less familiar with the conflict—they would never really give, such as, "We've got to get the Israelis to agree to a two-state solution!"
Much of the play, especially the first act, is a series of quick scenes depicting conversations and negotiations between the leaders that gradually get to the real heart of the situation: Israel's concerns about its security and survival, and Palestinians' desire for a state and rights substantial enough to please a population that had been yearning for them for at least 52 years.
The biggest problem with the production is the casting of Ron Zyna as Clinton. Ross's narrative and most others paint Clinton as Slick Willie, the master sweet-talker and orator whose speeches, as recently as at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, have been some of the most passionate and effective in the history of American politics. Zyna's Clinton is the exact opposite, constantly stammering and searching for his lines. Clinton's heartfelt desire to make the summit succeed is one of the central throughlines of Ross's and Shrager's narratives and it's all but completely subverted here by Zyna's total lack of persuasiveness.
Luckily, several of the other actors are much more compelling. Percy Thomas, as Yasser Arafat, is appropriately hammy as the proud, cautious former freedom fighter. Kenyon Parson (Saeb Erekat), Sammie Real III (Mohammed Dahlan), and Etienne Mac (Abu Ala) are superb as Arafat's negotiators, respectively the hard-liner, the moderate, and the realist.Tom Blair is also great as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, especially in a second-act scene where he visits the Gettysburg Battlefield and reflects on Israel's predicament. Dominic Gladden, like Real a graduate of Morgan State's theater program, plays Israeli negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami as the ultimately frustrated functionary.
If the first act feels too busy to rush through several days of detailed negotiations, the second act opens up considerably and allows for some extended scenes where the protagonists reveal their deepest fears. Immediately after Barak's Gettysburg scene is one with Arafat and Albright on an excursion to the Albright family estate. Oelke, who plays Albright stiffly throughout much of the play, loosens up a bit here, standing in for Ross and giving an impassioned appeal to Arafat to accept the deal Barak and Clinton have offered. The deal includes a return to pre-1967 borders, with Israel annexing 9 percent of the West Bank where the biggest Jewish settlements have been built, in exchange for 1 percent of land within Israel, Palestinian administrative control of East Jerusalem, and a nominal right of return for Palestinians, with most refugees settled in the new Palestinian state.
Albright is probably right when she says it is more than the Palestinians have ever been offered—despite Arafat's initial claims that slain Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin had offered him more in previous negotiations. She is also right that, given expected leadership changes in Israel and the U.S., he is not likely to see as good a deal anytime soon. Her most powerful argument—one even those fairly fluent with the situation may not be as familiar with—refers to two previous offers to the Palestinians: In 1947, the United Nations partition plan divided what is now the state of Israel and the occupied territories roughly 50-50 between Israel and a potential Palestinian state. The Israelis accepted, the Palestinians refused, and war erupted, with Israel claiming almost 60% of the territory proposed for a Palestinian state. This history is pretty well-known. Less known is the deal Albright refers to in the play as part of the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, when Arafat was offered the entire occupied territories as a state and was willing to accept, but was forced by Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat, his foremost ally, to refuse.
"Don't miss this opportunity," Albright implores, grasping Arafat's arm.
Earlier in the play, when he is asked to accept a deal, Arafat says, "Do you want to come to my funeral?" And here, he reflects on the long history of the Palestinian struggle and his fears—both personal and national—of being the one to give up on greater Palestinian aspirations. This tendency is offset by his desire to please Clinton, as he repeats several times, "I cannot disappoint my friend."
He does disappoint Clinton—we think; it's honestly hard to read much into Zyna's portrayal beyond frustrated bluster. Camp David ends with attempts to be optimistic for the press and public, but an overwhelming sense of impending doom.
It's a well-told narrative, one that builds as it gets deeper into the complicated history and reality, but it's important to remember that it's only one narrative, one perspective, on a situation where so many people have such different perspectives. Maybe the Baltimore Playwright series could endeavor to present another perspective next year. We'd love to see it.