Sandy Berger: The man who never gave up hope for Arab-Israeli peace

Sandy Berger succumbed to cancer this morning, casting a pall over an already grey, wet Washington day. Sandy represented all that was great in public service in this city. As Bill Clinton’s national security adviser he made a signal contribution to advancing American interests and the well-being of our nation in a troubled world. Nowhere was this more the case than in his efforts to make Arab-Israeli peace.

To those of us who had the privilege of working with Sandy when he was deputy and then national security adviser to President Clinton, there are sure to be many moments that will be remembered as we come to terms with his passing. My first memory of him is from the campaign trail when we needed to prepare then-Governor Clinton for his first encounter with Yitzhak Rabin, then the just-elected prime minister of Israel. We were at the Doral Country Club (it’s now known as the Trump Doral National!). Clinton wanted to eat and play golf but Sandy—and it was only Sandy who could do this—reached up and put both hands on Clinton’s shoulders and said, “Sit down! You need to hear this.” As Clinton wolfed down his lunch, Sandy and Sam Lewis and I briefed the president-to-be. We told him that if he put his mind to it, working with Rabin, he could have four peace treaties and achieve a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace in his first term in office. He looked at us and said quite simply: “I want to do that.” And for the next eight years, with Sandy by his side, providing his wise and always thoughtful counsel until the president’s very last day in office, Clinton did just that, achieving two peace agreements (the Oslo Accords and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty) and making considerable strides towards a third on the Israeli-Syria track.

Sandy advised the president that it was better to try and fail, or at least get caught trying. This was Sandy: careful, calculating and, when it came to making peace, courageous.

In May 2000, at a critical moment in the peace process, Sandy as National Security Adviser came to Israel to receive an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University, conferred by his friend Itamar Rabinovich. He also sought to prepare the ground for the fateful Camp David summit that Clinton would soon convene. I organized a working dinner for Sandy at the ambassador’s residence. Abu Mazen, Saeb Erakat, Nabil Shaath, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Yossi Ginnosar, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Haim Ramon, and Yossi Beilin were all in attendance. There was a real sense of camaraderie in the salon that evening—good friends sharing a common objective of turning the Oslo Accords into a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It took Sandy, with his clear-eyed ability to get to the essence of the matter, to puncture their balloon. He simply asked how they proposed to solve the issue of Jerusalem. Tempers flared as the Palestinians laid out their requirements for sovereignty over east Jerusalem and the Israelis said their public would never accept it. 

We went to Camp David, nevertheless. That’s because Sandy advised the president that it was better to try and fail, or at least get caught trying. This was Sandy: careful, calculating and, when it came to making peace, courageous. He maintained a deep and abiding conviction that American interests and Israel’s future would be best served by the pursuit of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors, especially the Palestinians. After leaving office he teamed up with Stephen Hadley, his Republican counterpart, to lead a years-long effort to provide external counsel to America’s peacemaking diplomats. I was just one of the beneficiaries of that partnership. Sandy never gave up on the hope for Arab-Israeli peace. We should draw inspiration from his conviction. 

There passes today a statesman and a good friend to so many in Washington and on both sides of the conflict. He is sorely missed.