Ten months have passed since that electrifying moment when Anwar Sadat stepped off his plane in Jerusalem. "Historic" is a term sadly overworked in this era of superheated hyperbole, but that initial meeting between Sadat and Menachem Begin deserved the description so freely applied them.
Seldom has an event touched off such feelings and aroused such hopes. Deep emotions were being tapped, ancient sorrows uncovered, cultural and religious roots from antiquity evoked. It was the Old Testament and the Koran, the Pyramids and the temple, Joseph and the Pharaohs. And all was played out, live and in color, before a watching world.
Whatever their meeting accomplished has been long obscured by subsequent bitterness and recrimination. Theirs was a classic reminder of the inherent dangers - conducting such emotionally charged diplomatic encounters in public: too many hopes are raised, carrying with them too many consequences of failure.
Whether that lesson has been learned by the Israeli and Egyptian leaders remains to be seen; the evidence for that appears, at best. The mercurial Sadat, enroute to the Camp David summit, called this newest meeting "a last chance" for peace - a statement which, if literally true, only increases pessimism. No one reasonably should expect peace to be declared after these talks in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland.
The president has been notably - and properly - circumspect in trying to set a useful tone for the sessions. "The prospects for complete success are very remote," he said as he, too, headed for Camp David.
Jimmy Carter was not being unduly gloomy when he said that. He was warning the public against expecting the sudden resolution of problems whose roots extend back to Biblical days.
Early in this century Britain's Lord Salisbury gave a definition of effective diplomacy that withstands all the twists and turns of crisis after crisis that have bedeviled national leaders for decade after decade.
"The victories of diplomacy," he said, "are won by a series of microscopic advantages - a judicious suggestion here, an opportune civility there, a wise concession at one moment and a far-sighted persistence at another - of sleepless tact, immovable clamness and patience that no folly, no provocation, no blunder can shake."
He was describing what Walter Lippmann later called the virtues of "quiet diplomacy," that which finds the ways and means of keeping critical issues from exploding. Invariably the most successful approach is not that ideal of democratic diplomacy once enunicated by Woodrow Wilson. He spoke of "open covenants of peace, openly arrived at" and added the belief that "diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view." In fact, experience and reality forced Wilson himself to back away from his rigidly proclaimed diplomatic theory.
Aside from the obvious significance of the summit, other aspects of the meeting are noteworthy.
This Sadat-Begin meeting is being staged under circumstances and setting totally different from the first. Before, thanks to television, everything was sharply highlighted and intensified. Each scene came over, to viewers everywhere, with dramatic impact.
The sight tears glistening in Sadat's eyes as he stood at attention on the airport ramp, taking the Israeli salute; the glimpses of common humanity conveyed as the leaders shared impressions of children and grandchildren; the sense of solemnity, and eloquence in the words uttered by erstwhile mortal enemies; the stirring of painful memories - all added to the power of that event.
Begin and Sadat, as the principal actors, seemed swept up in the emotion generated. Their public words contributed to the belief of historic breakthroughs. "I felt there was a great flame behind every word he said," Sadat remarked passionately after hearing Begin describe the atrocities of the past while visiting the memorial of the Jewish war dead in the Nazi holocaust. "There should always be a beginning," Begin said, in hailing what was then occuring.
At that time much concern was expressed about the perils of so-called "TV diplomacy." Television certainly played a role, and an important one, in bringing the two together. But it hardly can be criticized for contributing to subsequent failures of negotiation.
What the two men now face is the inevitable diplomatic difficulty of trying to turn some of those hopes into reality. The best vehicle is exactly the one chosen - meeting in privacy, sealed off from the outside, exploring and testing issues quietly face to face. The press of the world again has gathered to report on their discussions, but this time outside the gates.
Another key aspect of this summit involves the role of the United States, and particularly of the president. For the United States to be the good broker for peace in the Mideast only underscores perhaps the signal diplomatic failure of the 20th Century - to establish an international force capable of mediating fairly and effectively the deadly differences between individual nations.
Twice, the world experienced successively more terrible global wars - and twice the efforts to bring unrestrained national rivalries under the civilized rules of an international community failed. The League of Nations was impotent from the beginning. The "success" of the United Nations can be measured, cynically but accurately, by its total ineffectualness in contributing anything toward a Mideast settlement. Not even the foolish say anything about "taking it to the U.N." these days.
That leaves everything back where it was - in the realm of big power politics. Hope for true resolution of the Mideast problems lies, in part at least, in the good efforts of Jimmy Carter and his government. Everyone holds a stake in that effort. The best news about this latest meeting is, simply, that the effort is being made, seriously and quietly.
When dissent against the Vietnam war was beginning to rise, Sen. J. W. Fulbright gave a memorable speech in Sweden. Ostensibly it was on education, but really about lessons to be learned among nations.
"The hope contained in education is a simple hope for man," he said, "a hope that is held not because man is thought to be basically good as the 18th Century philosophers thought he was, nor because he is thought to be capable of heaven as theologians believed, but simply because he is man, neither inherently virtuous nor inherently wicked, predestined so far as we know neither to heaven nor to hell . . . In the field of international relations the purpose of education is the civilizing and humanizing of relations between nations in ways that are within the limits of human capacity. The question above all others that must concern us is whether that capacity is great enough to meet the needs and to overcome the dangers of our times."
That question remains the pertinent one today at Camp David, and continues to be unanswered.