Though he served as U.S. secretary of state during one of the most pivotal times in Arab-Israeli relations, Cyrus Vance did not make a forceful impression on the American Jewish leadership.
Instead, he is remembered as a quiet, thoughtful public servant who worked steadfastly behind the scenes.
Vance, who died Saturday in New York at age 84, served as the nation’s chief foreign policy administrator under President Carter, when the United States negotiated the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
Despite his position, however, Vance was seen as a minor character in Middle East diplomacy at the time.
“He was not that forceful and stayed in the background,” said Morris Amitay, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee during the Carter administration. “Carter was too much of a micro-manager to give anyone that much influence.”
Amitay, now a private consultant, said Vance’s style differed greatly from that of his predecessor, Henry Kissinger, and that Israeli activists did not deal with Vance often.
“The watchword then was to use Congress to influence policy,” Amitay said.
Vance also did not get along with Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, as the two struggled for influence with the White House. But the two did work together during Camp David, trying to negotiate a compromise between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
The first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state was signed on the White House lawn the following year.
“He was a man of principle, whose quiet contributions were often the difference between success and failure,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said Sunday in a statement.
Vance’s principles led to his most famous decision, his 1980 resignation protesting Carter’s decision to use force to try to rescue American hostages in Iran. The plan failed, leaving eight U.S. servicemen dead.
Hyman Bookbinder, the former longtime Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, said Vance was not anti-Jewish, but neither was he a champion of Jewish causes or Israel.
Bookbinder said he became intrigued with Vance when President Johnson sent Vance to Detroit to calm tensions after race riots in 1967.
“He really put his heart into that,” Bookbinder said.
In the Johnson administration, Vance served as general counsel at the Pentagon and later secretary of the army and deputy secretary of defense. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Vance was influential in supplying Israel with critical goods.
“When you dealt with Cy Vance, even when things were hot and heavy he was always quiet, thoughtful and considerate,” said Sheldon Cohen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service during the Johnson administration. “You’d never know he was in the room, but he would be the leader of what was happening in the room.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.