After a summer when Gaza was viewed as the most implacable place on Earth, when Jews and Arabs renewed their ancient enmities and charges of war crimes were followed like daily box scores, Lawrence Wright’s “Thirteen Days in September” comes as a refreshing reminder that peace between Arabs and Jews was once possible and has even proved to be durable.
Like a modern pharaoh making an exodus to Israel, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat delivered his historic speech before the Israeli Knesset in November 1977, and President Jimmy Carter saw an opportunity to fulfill his religious destiny by bringing peace to the Holy Land. First lady Rosalynn Carter suggested Camp David as an ideal location for a summit, which commenced on Sept. 5, 1978. The president hoped that a dramatic change in scenery from the deserts of the Middle East to the lush, mountainous forests of Maryland would help bring a final end to four wars fought over 30 years.
What was needed, however, was the wisdom of King Solomon, not the peacefulness of Camp David. Serenity was soon outmaneuvered by realpolitik. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin never loosened his tie, nor did his mind stray from the horror of the Holocaust, where Jewish ash would convince the world that Jews deserved land of their own. Sadat secluded himself, even from his advisers, believing that Camp David would make him as immortal as a pyramid, whether or not he took part in the negotiations.
With rare exceptions, the Egyptians and the Israelis remained, physically, worlds apart — no campfire songs or movie nights. Carter believed that an agreement could be reached within three days. It took an interminable 13. The parties threatened to walk out almost daily. Begin and Sadat received Nobel Peace Prizes for their efforts in reaching an accord. They deserved medals just for sticking around. The American president’s optimism was misplaced, and he eventually paid a price for prodding the statesmen at Camp David while appearing to ignore his own country’s collapsing economy.
Wright, a New Yorker staff writer, does a masterful job painting psychological portraits of three world leaders who had little in common other than a shared sense that they were, quite possibly, changing the course of history. (Wright adapted the same material into a play, “Camp David,” which premiered in March at Arena Stage in Washington.) Carter sought to overcome the historical animus between the two peoples. But he failed to appreciate the complex history of these particular men and the regional nuances so foreign to a former peanut farmer. Sadat remained fixated on his legacy, completely losing sight of the Islamic fanaticism that soon engulfed the Persian Gulf and, eventually, the entire Middle East. And Begin, orphaned and seared by the Holocaust, lacked the imagination to contemplate anything other than defending his people. There was also an entire cast of secondary characters — negotiating teams who came to Camp David with their own bitter backstories and stained suspicions — whom Wright orchestrates with novelistic panache.
The author is not above taking sides. Sadat comes across as regal and dignified — impulsive but trustworthy. Begin is portrayed as brilliant but also obstinate, if not duplicitous — more land-grabber than peacemaker. Sadat was assassinated for his heroics, but the peace he brought his people has endured. Wright assigns a far less charitable legacy to Begin as the prime minister who transformed Israel into a neighborhood bully — expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, bombing an Iraqi nuclear reactor, and invading Lebanon.
The world’s opinion of Israelis did change in some quarters, from scrappy farmers to evil occupiers, after Camp David. But Wright does not mention why Israel might have come to believe that a more aggressive path was in the country’s best interest. The harsh reality of neighbors with genocidal intentions was something Carter did not sufficiently account for. And neither, apparently, has Wright. Palestinian resistance fighters in the book are referred to as “militants,” not as “terrorists.” Begin, however, is repeatedly cited for his terrorist past. Indeed, Wright credits him with writing the terrorist playbook, later read by al-Qaeda. Shouldn’t it be assumed that the Palestine Liberation Organizaion and Hamas read it as well, with their own grisly results? Wright depicts Carter as mystified by Begin’s failure to show sympathy for Palestinian suffering but gives the reader no context as to why that might be so.
Instead, former Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan is called out for his cross-border raids against civilians, and Gen. Ariel Sharon is remembered for his complicity in the massacre of two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. And just to introduce a biblical twist, Wright observes that after wandering the desert for 40 years, Israel’s first fighting Jew, Joshua, annihilated entire tribes from Canaan to clear the neighborhood for the Chosen People. Wright even calls into question Israel’s archaeological claims to the Promised Land. According to Wright, Egypt may be the country with the most valid historical claim to the land on which Israel sits today.
Wright’s timing is impeccable. Carter has once more insinuated himself into the morass of the Middle East, last month urging that Hamas be treated as a legitimate political actor. (In 2007, he published a book in which he compared Israel’s policies on the West Bank to apartheid.) For a man who once bridged what appeared to be an impossible divide, his current antipathy toward Israel reveals a chasm where sits a former president bearing a grudge and a deep sense of unfinished business.
THIRTEEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER
Carter, Begin, and Sadat
at Camp David
By Lawrence Wright
Knopf. 345 pp. $27.95