There’s an air of tragedy hovering over Lawrence Wright’s excellent new book on the 1978 peace negotiations at Camp David, presided over by then-President Jimmy Carter.
During those fateful autumn days, the world watched as three world leaders — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — shook hands at the White House after reaching an agreement to end three decades of war. Every reader of Wright’s book, however, will know what’s coming in the book’s epilogue — the promise of peace in the Middle East was fleeting and ultimately proved false.
Wright is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of many books, including a widely praised history of the Church of Scientology. “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” is his exceedingly balanced, highly readable and appropriately sober look at the peace talks that unfolded at the wooded military base in Maryland.
The agreement Carter brokered between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the crowning achievement of his otherwise disappointing presidency. Sadat and Begin later were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Wright’s book is no paean to the leaders.
Instead, he casts a critical and honest eye upon the three men. Much of “Thirteen Days” details the fractured personal and public histories that brought Carter, Begin and Sadat to power and eventually to Camp David. And it portrays the negotiations themselves as a tense series of meetings between powerful men who whined, pouted and screamed to get their way.
For nearly two weeks, the three leaders and their many advisers lived in the forced intimacy of the Camp David cabins. For most of the time they were there, the leaders and their entourages sat around and sulked. It didn’t take long for several delegates to ask to be freed from “this cursed prison.”
On the surface, Begin and Sadat had little in common. But earlier in their careers both had been prisoners of the British colonial authorities. Both had fought — often viciously — for the independence of their countries. Wright doesn’t spare showing us the blood they had on their hands.
As a young Egyptian nationalist during World War II, Sadat joined a “murder society” that assassinated isolated British soldiers and later targeted Egyptian leaders who collaborated with British colonial authorities.
Begin was a Zionist from a young age. In 1929, he joined a paramilitary Jewish youth group in Poland. He lost most of his family in the Holocaust. In Palestine, he became among the fiercest of the rebels fighting the British for the creation of a Jewish state. He used tactics that would later come to be branded “terrorism.”
“The transformation of terrorism as a primarily local phenomenon into a global one came about in large part because of the success of his tactics,” Wright writes of Begin. “He proved that, under the right circumstances, terror works.”
Next to Begin and Sadat, Carter’s political career was sedate and provincial. A peanut farmer and former naval officer, he rose to power as a moderate on racial issues in a Southern state emerging from the violence and confrontation of segregation. Carter was also a pious man with a lifelong fascination with the Holy Land. With the U.S. in a deep economic and cultural funk, he staked his political future on the summit.
He brought the leaders to a mountain camp first made an official presidential getaway by Franklin Roosevelt. Carter said, “I don’t believe anyone could stay in this place, close to nature, peaceful and isolated from the world, and still carry a grudge.” As Wright points out, Carter would soon come to see the “naïveté" of that statement.
Carter wanted a comprehensive peace that would resolve the fate of the stateless, occupied Palestinian Arabs. But that dream was doomed even before the summit, since the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the state of Israel refused to recognize each other’s existence.
Sadat had helped set a peace process in motion with a surprise visit to Jerusalem in 1977. By agreeing to Carter’s Camp David gambit, he hoped that Egypt might displace Israel as the Americans’ key ally in the region. Begin was convinced the talks would fail — he was the only one of the three leaders to arrive at the summit without any proposals.
Carter hoped the opposing camps would warm to each other in an informal setting complete with bicycles and jogging paths. But as Wright points out, many in the two delegations had faced off against each other in one or more of the four wars the Israelis and Arabs had fought over the previous three decades.
For the Arabs, the support of Western powers for Israel had left them convinced that “Israel had been created not as a homeland for persecuted Jews but as a base for Western imperialists to maintain their stranglehold on the Middle East.” All those wars had left Israel as the region’s most powerful country, but also one surrounded by enemies.
As a condition for recognizing Israel, Sadat demanded that Begin return the Sinai Peninsula. Begin said such a deal would mean giving away a buffer zone of deserts and mountains in exchange for a mere written promise. Given Begin’s own experiences with loss and betrayal, it was a difficult bargain to make.
“There was only one thing standing in the way, and that was Begin’s entire history,” Wright says.
Wright describes Carter’s efforts to break the deadlock, including an excursion with both sets of delegates to the battlefield at nearby Gettysburg, as a reminder of “the fateful consequences of a failure at Camp David.” Eventually, Carter made the decision to push for a limited agreement between Israel and Egypt, leaving the fate of Jerusalem and the Palestinians unsettled.
Sadat’s own foreign minister warned that such an agreement would be “ruinous” to Egypt and would “add fuel to the fire” by leaving Israel with free rein in the West Bank. Israel’s position was strengthened even more by a diplomatic misunderstanding on the final, exhausting night of the summit.
When the treaty was finally signed, Egypt had effectively severed its links to the Palestinian cause, Wright says. Without “a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions.”
But the final outcome was not entirely a disaster. As Wright points out, there has not been a single violation of the agreement in the 35 years since. Even as endless battles rage nearby, Egypt and Israel remain at peace with each other.
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Thirteen Days in September
Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
Alfred A. Knopf: 368 pp., $27.95