By Judith Weinraub
Updated March 06, 1978 12:00 PM

For nearly four years, while their countries bristled menacingly at each other across the Sinai, the Egyptian and Israeli ambassadors to the U.S. had maintained a stony diplomatic silence. They would often show at the same Washington cocktail parties or at black-tie fetes of state, only to discreetly ignore each other’s existence. Even when they appeared on TV panels together, they would sit mutely side by side before going on the air. “It was an unnatural state of affairs,” says Simcha Dinitz, Israel’s envoy to Washington. “People would talk to me about him, and I presume to him about me. Reporters would even pass along his regards, but it was always long-distance communication.”

Now all that has changed—the result of Anwar Sadat’s dramatic trip to Jerusalem and some deft social engineering on the part of ABC’s Barbara Walters. According to Dinitz, Walters phoned from the Middle East last November to ask if he and Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal would appear together on Issues and Answers. Ghorbal balked but quickly agreed to an off-the-record dinner instead. “Lots of people had tried to bring us together in the past,” explains the dapper Egyptian diplomat, “and it wasn’t that we lacked the desire. It was just the rules of the game. Now that the rules have changed, the game changes.”

The dinner, at Washington’s Madison Hotel last December, was a political and conversational watershed (even without the purported incident or non-incident involving Hamilton Jordan and Madame Ghorbal’s décolletage). Dinitz insists that he had never been forbidden by his government to approach the Egyptian ambassador, “but I didn’t want to put him in a position where he would have had to turn away.” “If we were going to speak before, what would we have talked about?” asks Ghorbal. “After four wars, one following the other, emotions were strained on each side.” Come the thaw, however, their first meeting was decidedly chummy. “For all those years I’d wanted the opportunity to talk and say so many things,” says Dinitz, “but when it came, the first sentences were meaningless pleasantries. We even discussed the weather. But then we talked more on substance, and it was a good feeling.” Adds Ghorbal: “We both felt as if we’d known each other for quite a while.” The two have met several times since.

Both men are career diplomats, although Ghorbal’s ascension to the top was less tortuous. Born in Alexandria, the son of a judge on Egypt’s highest court, he graduated with honors from Cairo University. After joining the foreign ministry, he won a scholarship to Harvard, where at 24 he received a Ph.D. in political science. Following some 25 years of overseas postings, including assignments in Paris, London and New York, Ghorbal was recalled to Egypt in 1973 to become Sadat’s adviser and, eventually, his confidant. Though he had made many American friends, Ghorbal had grown increasingly concerned over the future of U.S.- Egyptian relations. Then later that year he realized the dream of a lifetime, becoming Egypt’s first ambassador to the U.S. since the two countries had broken off diplomatic relations during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Ghorbal and his delicately beautiful wife, Amal, 42, live in the elegant embassy residence just a courtyard away from his chancery office. (Their daughter, Nahed, 23, is married to a surgeon in Cairo; their son, Omar, 19, is a student at Catholic University.) They host parties about twice a week and go out themselves practically every other night. A scant four pounds over his preferred weight, the 5’3″ ambassador keeps in trim with workouts on his Exercycle and occasional jogging. Devoutly religious, he prays five times a day—”If I miss one, I combine the next two”—and last March helped negotiate the release of 130 hostages, most of them Jews, from three Washington buildings being held by armed Hanafi Muslims. Ghorbal saw his role then as simply an extension of his larger mission—”fighting the idea that we Arabs are bellicose and unpeaceful—all the wrong adjectives.”

Dinitz, the son of a Tel Aviv textile merchant who emigrated from Russia, joined the underground in his mid-teens during Israel’s fight for independence, abandoning his ambitions in the theater. In 1950, the war won, he packed off to the University of Cincinnati to study law and politics. Later, while enrolled at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, he was offered a position with the Israeli embassy. “Now don’t get us wrong,” cautioned an official, trying to temper Dinitz’s youthful exuberance. “We’re looking not for a new ambassador but a night watchman.” Dinitz took the job, completed his master’s and joined Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1958. Five years later he became chief aide to Foreign Minister Golda Meir. “My name was brought to her,” he admits. “I didn’t want the job.” When Golda became prime minister, he became her top political adviser, returning to Washington as ambassador in 1973. “I came half a year before the Yom Kippur War,” he says, “and I haven’t had a restful day since.” (During several periods an open hot line was installed to Henry Kissinger’s desk.)

Aware that as a Meir appointee he may soon be removed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Dinitz lives with his Ohio-born wife, Vivian, 47, in a comfortable white brick house in the D.C. suburbs. Two daughters, Doreet, 22, and Tamar, 21, are students at George Washington University; a son, Michael, 15, attends a public high school in Maryland. Occasionally Dinitz squeezes in a quick game of tennis, often with members of Congress like Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. “But I don’t like to mix sport with politics,” he says. “I play tennis to forget people, not to get to know them.”

He may make an exception, however, for his new friend the Egyptian ambassador, who recently took up the game. “I asked Ghorbal if he was sure he wanted to start with tennis rather than Ping-Pong,” jokes Dinitz. “I told him we’d better play soon, since he’s a learner and I’m a forgetter.” As unlikely as such a match would have seemed only a few months ago, neither Ghorbal nor his Israeli counterpart believes the status quo ante will ever return. “I think the situation will never revert to what it was,” says Dinitz. “After all, if there is any hope, it is only through dialogue.”