THE PACE of world events is so fast nowadays and is so extensively covered by daily chronicles that last year's sensation soon recedes in memory and moment. The Camp David Accords were quite an achievement in 1978-79, before the downfall of the shah, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war and on and on. Agreements that produced peace between Israel and its biggest Arab neighbor, ending a period of animosity that featured four major wars, appear from this distance, more pallid than they should Camp David was a triumph. Jimmy Carter was a hero. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat were statesmen.
Yet the whole business seems tarnished by failures and disappointments that followed. Carter was soundly trounced at the polls. Talks about autonomy for Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza stalled. Israelis became suspicious that Sadat would abandon them once he gets back the Sinai next spring. Sadat grew exasperated with Israeli belligerence. Still, Israeli-Egyptian peace survives for now. Relations are, if not amiable, then at least reasonable. In our times and given the tensions that prevailed, such a state of affairs is to be celebrated.
All of the prologue is by way of stirring some enthusiasm for what is a fascinating and important book, Breakthrough, Moshe Dayan's account of the peace negotiations in which Dayan as Israel's foreign minister played a supporting part. This is not -- as some might expect -- a sterile account of a hollow exercise involving personalities of secondary stature. It is, in sum, an absorbing recreation of an extraordinary complex and emotional relationship among three leaders juggling political requirements with risktaking and succeeding in their objectives.
Dayan is probably the best suited of any of the participants to write a full account of the negotiations. He has less at stake than Carter, Begin or Sadat. After all, Dayan will be more remembered for his military prowess than his diplomatic spearcarrying. He takes no undue credit for his own role, making clear throughout that Camp David was almost completely the principals' show. I suppose an especially skillfull and fortunate journalist or historian could get access to the negotiators' recollections. But Dayan was there and he provides a first-hand account that no outsider could really match.
Several themes emerge. Perhaps the most surprising is the toughness of Jimmy Carter. Somewhere Carter got a reputation as a wimp, unable to make hard choices and unable, therefore, to lead. But that is not the picture that comes through here. "Though Carter spoke in a dull monotone." Dayan writes at one difficult point in the talks, "there was fury in his cold blue eyes and his glance was dagger sharp. His portrayal of our position was basically correct, but it could not have been expressed in a more hostile form."
Carter's grasp of the detail was evidently impressive enough to move Sadat and Begin at times when they seemed least amenable. In Dayan's account, Carter personally held the process together -- quite a tribute.
The performance of other Americans is portrayed as less formidable, and for that Carter to some extent must be blamed. The "coolness" between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski comes through as a problem, although Vance is remembered warmly for his professionalism.
More generally, Dayan observes. American officials suffered from a "superficial grasp of the Middle East, its peoples and their problems. . . . They had met and talked to the leaders of the countries in the region time and again; yet it seemed as though they accepted what they were told . . . at their face value without reservation and without distinguishing between their words and reality. . . . The judgment of the United States Government of what was likely to happen in Iran or in Lebanon and the probable reaction to Sadat's peace initiative by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, failed to stand the test of time."
Another theme -- and on this one Dayan may be less objective -- is that Israel was consistently under more pressure than Egypt to give in. "We could not avoid the feeling," Dayan writes late in the negotiations, that americans "were applying a double standard, one for the Egyptians and another for us." This is a frequent Israeli complaint of recent years in dealings with the United States. What comes through in Dayan's version is that on a number of occasions Israel was punished by the United States for its hesitations while Egypt was merely cajoled. Dayan by no means comes across as a great admirer of Begin. But he does apparently feel that Sadat's brilliant showmanship and the novelty of his boldness in traveling first to Jerusalem obscured Begin's own courage.
I was struck by the relationship between technical detail and political commitment in the peace process. Sadat's pilgrimage to Jerusalem made negotiations possible, but the will to succeed was repeatedly overwhelmed by intricate details -- details which mattered in the end only because they had to be resolved before broader agreement was possible. For instance, vast amounts of time and attention were expended on the modalities of the autonomy talks. Without these there would have been no peace treaty. Yet the autonomy talks stalled because a broader desire to succeed did not exist on the part of Jordan and the Palestinians.
In short, the most exquisitely crafted diplomatic document is only as good as the convictions of its authors. Paper doesn't make peace. People do.
What Dayan lacks as an author is a writer's flair for the epic. His prose is clear, precise and straightforward. It never soars. We never learn much about the motivation of the principals -- why Dayan thinks Sadat opted for peace; or why Begin believed he could trust Sadat after decades of so deep a mistrust of Arabs. Only in dealing with his own feelings about Arabs does Dayan give us a glimpse of why these sentiments are so complicated.
Breakthrough in this sense is a documentary rather than a docudrama. It will not bring tears to your eyes at the moment that Sadat, Begin and Carter sign the peace treaty or any other time for that matter. But given the pitfalls of creative overstatement, history as screenplay and the like, Breakthrough is a welcome record -- cool, sensitive solid.