by Lawrence Wright
My dad gave me this one for Christmas. When I finished it and tried to talk to him about it, he asked to borrow it. Funny how that happens right? But I’ve done the same thing, so I’m not really one to judge.
Thirteen Days in September chronicles the the efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. The Jewish state had been at war with its Arab neighbors on and off since it first declared independence in 1948. While these wars generally went well for Israel, which was not destroyed and whose borders had been ever-expanding, the Arabs faced humiliation after humiliation. These defeats only strengthened Arab resolve, and the contest between Israel and the Arab nations, especially Egypt, grew into an never-ending cycle.
Meanwhile, the United States elected a southern entrepreneur and Navy veteran named Jimmy Carter as President in 1976. Carter, a devout, born-again Christian, wanted part of his legacy to be an end to the conflict in the Middle East. After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visits Israel to express his desire for peace, Carter saw his opportunity and invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to hash out some sort of settlement.
Wright, the author of Going Clear (now a major motion picture!), focuses his book not only on the titular thirteen days of the conference, but on the histories of the men involved and even that of the Middle East itself. I was particularly impressed with the way that he wove these histories into his narrative, moving effortlessly from the conference, to historical anecdote, to the stories that he uses to illustrate who these men are. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must be to write a book like this; the research that Wright must’ve put in, and then to be able to tell an actual story while switching back and forth- it was pretty unbelievable.
I came away from this much more knowledgeable than I’d been going in. Perhaps that’s not super impressive, as I hadn’t really known much about Camp David beforehand, but it proved to be a very interesting topic. For one thing, Jimmy Carter is a very impressive man. I always get that impression from reading about him, and then immediately forget. It’s easy to lose sight of his accomplishments in the light of his public perception: the jokes and the constant refrain that he was a horrible president, which seems odd given that nobody seems to remember anything about those years. If you come in with an open mind, and no preconceived notion of Carter as a failure, you can’t look at Camp David and see anything but a significant accomplishment.
As fascinating a character as President Carter is, the leaders of Egypt and Israel are just as interesting. The reigning political class in each country had come of age during World War II and the years that followed, and both Sadat and Begin had cut their teeth fighting against British colonialism in their respective countries. Wright does not shy away from the historical fact that both men had engaged in terrorism as a response to the British occupation. It’s an incredibly inconvenient fact, especially for Israel, which often cloaks itself in anti-terrorist rhetoric, and yet might not exist today without the actions of groups like Irgun. As statesmen, however, Begin and Sadat have put those days behind them, making it merely a part of their shared history.
While there are similarities among the three men, the contradictions are often just as stark. Aside from the obvious difference in religion, nationality, and personal ideology, the traits that Wright identifies as most significant seem to tear the men apart and make the idea of lasting peace a near impossibility. While Israel and the United States are strongly allied, Jimmy Carter actually finds more common ground with Anwar Sadat of Egypt. For the two of them, peace is their mission; Sadat essentially staked his career on peace, even travelling to the Knesset in Israel to show his dedication to ending the conflict. Carter likewise views it as a part of his responsibility in office, his religion and his ideology even leading him to stake his presidency on the peace process. Menachem Begin, meanwhile, thinks that the talks are a trap for Israel, and that a peace that doesn’t resolve the major issues between Israelis and Arabs would be hollow. He believes that Israel did not elect him to make peace with its neighbors, even as his advisers appear almost unanimous in their belief that that Camp David would be Israel’s best opportunity in the foreseeable future. Sadat’s advisers, on the other hand, don’t believe that peace can be achieved without Egypt making unacceptable concessions. The whole situation proves to be a huge headache for Carter, who perhaps underestimated the stubbornness of the other leaders involved.
In the end, an agreement is signed, through sheer force of will. A negotiation that was supposed to take three days is extended, again and again, even while it seems that no actual progress is being made. When an agreement is finally reached after nearly two weeks, one gets the sense that it’s more out of the leaders’ desire to go home than anything else, and indeed many issues are kicked down the road. As impressive an achievement as Camp David was, it turned out not to be the peace that anyone wanted. Each of the leaders pays a price for his involvement, and I wonder if they ever managed to convince themselves that it was all worth it in the end.
Thirteen Days in September looks at a moment in history that seems forgotten by those who didn’t live through it. I, for one, learned a lot, and came away with a renewed respect for the hard work of peacemakers, even those who fall short.