Bygone days: The speech, the cop and the Psalms

How Abie Finegold saved the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

Menachem Begin 88 (photo credit: Tova Weiss)
Menachem Begin 88
(photo credit: Tova Weiss)
With puritan wrath that make Messrs Knox and Calvin look flexible, Jimmy Carter, the post-Watergate American president of moral renewal with a penchant for anti-Israel sermonizing while consorting with the enemy, has been in town preaching his self-righteous, other-cheek chastisements. Amazing to think that this was the man who, almost 30 years ago, brokered with impartiality and goodwill the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, immortalized in the scene of the three-way hand clasp of Prime Minister Begin, president Sadat, and himself - a picture of reconciliation so memorable it brought the 1,600 invited guests on the White House lawn to their feet in rhapsodic ovation. As an adviser to premier Begin at the time, I had the task of rendering a final polish to his English speeches. He needed no speech writer for his command of English was excellent. What he needed was someone to give his text a touch of what he would call "Shakespeare." When I asked him on the evening before the peace-signing ceremony when he would have his speech draft ready, he quipped with a tap to the temple, "It's in here. It's incubating in here. You'll have it as soon as it's finished in here." His original intention had been to draft it during the long and tedious flight from Tel Aviv to Washington, but the journey turned out too distracting. We were traveling in an antiquated Israel Air Force Boeing 707, refurbished with discarded EL AL seats many of which were without springs, and occupied by cabinet ministers and opposition leaders who kept the premier engaged for much of the way. Moreover, the turbulence over the Atlantic was so severe it made me feel like a piece of salad in a colander tossed by a particularly energetic cook. So, by the time we'd unpacked at the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Avenue I was ready for bed. "Go to bed," said the prime minister when I walked into his suite to check on the status of his speech. "You look weary. I'll ring you first thing in the morning when it's ready." And so he did - at 5 a.m. Still bedraggled and bleary-eyed, I dragged myself to his suite and found him in a dressing gown, full of beans. "Kindly Shakespearize this," he said, giving me eight pages of tight, vertical scrawl. I immediately set to work, handing page after polished page to my secretary, Norma, who checked and rechecked it, with particular attention to the English translation of Psalm 126 which we copied from a Gideon's Bible in a bedside drawer ("When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion"), and which was the peroration of his address. After going over the typed polished version one last time, I placed it in a luxurious black leather folder which I'd brought with me from Jerusalem, and carried it to the premier's suite where he was breakfasting with foreign minister Moshe Dayan and defense minister Ezer Weizman. "Please place it on the desk by the window," he instructed. "If there are changes I'll let you know." HEARING NOTHING from him all morning, I pocketed the hand-written draft and by now shaved, showered and generally spruced up, boarded the minibus marked "ISRAELI DELEGATION - Prime Minister's Staff," to be driven to Blair House where secretary of state Cyrus Vance was hosting a noon luncheon for the Egyptian, American, and Israeli delegations. The Begins and the Sadats were to lunch an hour later with the Carters at the White House, and would then walk out together onto the North Lawn for the signing ceremony, at 2 p.m. Moving down Connecticut Avenue en route to Blair House, our American driver drew up at a traffic light, but General Poran, the prime minister's military secretary, pounded the dashboard and sharply ordered him not to stop. "Jump the light!" he commanded. But the man stared back at him bewildered, as did we all, not having seen what Poran had seen in the rear view mirror - a band of 30 or so Arab demonstrators exiting a side street and rushing toward us, yelling slogans. The driver inched forward hooting through the snarled traffic, but it was too late. The demonstrators swarmed around us, some carrying anti-peace placards, while ranting wild taunts and curses and threats against Sadat and Begin, and the peace treaty they were about to sign. Cowering, I peered out of the window at faces full of hate and venom. The driver, numb with dread, was incapable of running the tormentors down even if he had wanted to. All the others in the vehicle seemed to be maintaining a remarkable sang froid until a man with a keffiyeh started to pound the roof with a stick. Others whacked with their fists, booing, hissing, and spitting, while yet others heaved the minibus from side to side. And as the vehicle pitched and tossed, we all stared fixedly ahead, gripping our seats as best we might, until rescued after what seemed ages, but was probably seconds, by mounted police who, truncheons flying, cleared a path to let us through. Our driver revved up the engine, gunned the vehicle forward, and pulled away with a tire-wrenching jerk, knuckles white. When he brought us safely to our destination he acknowledged our thanks with a scowl, and hissed through clenched teeth, "That's the last frigging time I'll ever drive Israelis again." THE IMAGES that stared back at us in the mirror of the Blair House entrance hall affirmed that we looked none the worse for wear, so we joined the crowd at the buffet table where I was accosted by Ovad, a member of the prime minister's security detail, who told me that Mr. Begin was searching for me urgently. He dialed a classified number and put me through. "Mr. Begin, you're looking for me?" I panted. "Yes, where's my speech?" "On the desk by the window in your suite, where you told me to put it." "No, not that one - my original draft." "It's in my pocket. You need it?" "Yes - now!" "When are you leaving for the White House?" "In just over a quarter-of-an hour - at 12:40." I looked at my watch. The dial said 12:25, and a cold shiver ran down my spine. "I'll bring it to you right away," I heaved, not having the slightest idea how. But then I spied secretary of state Vance casually chatting with an Egyptian and, in desperation, brandished the speech in his face and said with deadly seriousness, "Mr. Secretary, unless I get this document to Mr. Begin at the Hilton Hotel within 10 minutes there will be no signing ceremony today." He stared at me in disbelief. "Come with me," he snapped, and he strode to the front door where he collared a senior police officer who ran down the steps to a waiting police car, and ordered the cop inside, "Get this man to the Hilton in 10 minutes or I'll have your head. Step on it." Siren blaring, we hit 80km/h within a block, whereupon the policeman extended a massive paw, and chirped, "Sholom aleichem! My name's Abie Finegold. I'm one of four Jewish cops on the Washington force. Pleased to meet you." "Aleichem Shalom," I grinned back, flabbergasted. "Are we going to make it?" "Sure, you bet. When Abie Finegold presses on the gas people know to keep out of my way. Hey, lady!" He was yelling at an aging driver in an aging car, at a signal light. "That light's green, and it isn't going to get greener. Go! Go! Go!" He peeled off around her, and she made an obscene gesture as we passed. Another car made the near fatal mistake of slowing at an intersection with no stop sign or traffic light. Abie Finegold flashed his headlights, blasted his horn, raised his siren to an even higher hysterical pitch, did a sharp swerve, swore, and clucked, "Jeez, I almost hit the bastard. He swore again as he bored down on a 40km/h sluggard, then tailgated a fellow who, in despair, mounted the sidewalk to let him pass. I was beginning to enjoy this: High Noon on Connecticut Avenue and I was Gary Cooper. "Mazal tov! We made it!" chirped Abie, screeching to a halt in front of the Hilton. The clock on the dashboard read 12:39. I ran into the lobby just as Mr. and Mrs. Begin were exiting an elevator surrounded by a bevy of bodyguards. "Baruch Hashsem!" cried Mr. Begin when I handed him the pages. "Thank God you caught me!" "The speech that I left on your desk - it's not what you wanted?" I asked, peeved. "Oh, no, it's fine," he assured me. "It's just that as I was going over it I suddenly had the feeling that today of all days I want to read my own speech exactly as I wrote it, in my own hand." And to make the implicit explicit: "I wrote it from the heart and I want to read it from the heart." PRESIDENT CARTER was the first to speak, then president Sadat, and then Prime Minister Begin. All three promised the worldwide television audience in the millions that warfare between Egypt and Israel was banished forever quoting, coincidentally, the famous Isaiah phrase about swords being beaten into plowshares. And even as they pronounced these words the shouts of thousands of Arab protesters from the nearby Lafayette Park drifted across Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, a reminder that the whole of the Arab world was implacably opposed to the document to which the leaders had just put their signatures. Begin's address was by far the most highly charged with personal emotion. "Peace is the beauty of life," he sentimentalized. "It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. It is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth." To Sadat, he said: "It is a great day in your life, Mr. President. In the face of adversity and hostility you have demonstrated the human value that can change history - civil courage. A great field commander once said civil courage is sometimes more difficult to show than military courage. You showed both, Mr. President. But now it is time for all of us to show civil courage in order to proclaim to our peoples and to others: no more war, no more bloodshed, no more bereavement - peace unto you; shalom, salaam forever." And then, husky with emotion: "This is the proper place and the appropriate time to bring back to memory the song and the prayer of thanksgiving I learned as a child in the home of my father and mother, that doesn't exist any more because they were among the six million people, men, women and children who sanctified the Lord's name with their sacred blood which reddened the rivers of Europe from the Rhine to the Danube, from the Bug to the Volga, because - only because - they were born Jews; and because they didn't have a country of their own, nor a valiant Jewish army to defend them; and because nobody - nobody - came to their rescue, although they cried out 'Save us! Save us!' from the depths of the pit and agony: that is the Song of Degrees written two millennia and five hundred years ago when our forefathers returned from their first exile to Jerusalem, to Zion." He felt into his pocket and took out a black silk yarmulke which he placed on his head, and in a gesture pregnant with symbolism recited in the original Hebrew the whole of the Psalm of David - Shir hama'alot b'shuv Hashem et shivat Ziyon hayinu k'cholmim - without rendering it into English. "I will not translate it," he said. "Every person - whether Jew, Christian or Muslim - can read it in his or her own language in the Book of Books. It is simply Psalm 126." The writer served on the staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.