THIRTEEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER by Lawrence Wright

(Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David Summit in September, 1978)

On November 19, 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made a momentous journey when he visited Jerusalem.  First, it led to the Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel, effectively removing Israel’s strongest enemy from the battlefield.  Second, it cost the Egyptian leader his life as he was assassinated by Islamic extremists on October 6, 1981.  Sadat’s removal from the diplomatic scene was a blow to the peace process from that point on.  Motivated by the needs of the Egyptian economy, poverty, and the condition of his military, Sadat, known for bold moves sought peace as a solution to his nation’s ills.   Because he chose peace at Camp David it precluded another round of war between Egypt, Syria, and Israel.  Not since William B. Quandt’s CAMP DAVID: PEACEMAKING AND POLITICS has the reading public been exposed to what happened over the two week period in the fall of 1978 when an Arab country finally made peace with Israel.  Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer prize winning author for his work the LOOMING TOWER, has just completed THIRTEEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER: CARTER, BEGIN, AND SADAT AT CAMP DAVID, a work of historical synthesis that tries to explain the origins and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how the Camp David Accords fit into the diplomatic equation.  Wright is a marvelous purveyor of narrative history.  He has an excellent knack for integrating past history, be it, dealing with Biblical myths or recent political and military conflicts into his narrative.  The book is quite readable and he tries to untangle the web of inconclusive negotiations and wars between Israel and the Arab states dating back to World War II.  In so doing, he explores the Camp David process on a daily basis examining the personalities involved, the political landscape that each participant risked, the diplomatic minutia that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat engaged in, and the effect that failure or success might have on the summits results.

The book ostensibly is the story of three flawed men who came together at the 140 acre presidential retreat that lies inside Maryland’s heavily wooded Catoctin Mountain Park sixty miles north of the White House.  Jimmy Carter “was fueled by his religious belief that God had put him in office in part to bring peace to the Holy Land,” and unlike previous American presidents he was willing to risk the prestige of his office to pursue his goal. (285) Carter had been warned by his former campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan of the domestic political consequences, particularly among American Jews, should it be perceived that he pressured Israel into making a settlement, but Carter was determined to make the effort.  Anwar Sadat realized how weak Egypt was becoming due to the state of their economy and his goal was to try and “supplant Israel as America’s best friend in the region”.  Peace was a highly desirable outcome as it would bring with it American economic assistance and European investment, but more importantly if the summit failed because of Israeli intransigence, it would boost Egypt’s standing with the United States.  Begin agreed to attend believing it was a necessity because of Carter’s personal invitation.  He believed it would only last a few days, and that nothing of substance would be accomplished other than the promise of future talks.  Begin’s main goal was to avoid being blamed for the summits failure, but as Wright accurately describes, the only way that could be achieved was making sure it succeeded.

Wright does an exceptional job locating information that was heretofore not commonly known.  An interesting example is the CIA’s profiles of Begin and Sadat that were requested by Carter as he prepared for the summit.  Based on Wright’s narrative of the tense and at times vitriolic negotiations, the CIA’s analysis of each was quite accurate.  Sadat “saw himself as a grand strategic thinker blazing like a comet through the skies.”  The CIA noted his penchant for publicity, terming it the “Barbara Walters Syndrome,” by the time the summit began; it was upgraded to Sadat’s “‘Noble Peace Prize Complex.”  Begin was seen as “secretive, legalistic, and leery of radical change.  History, for Begin, was a box full of tragedy; one shouldn’t expect to open it without remorse.”(9)  When under pressure Sadat resorted to generalities, Begin to minutiae, creating a situation Carter did not anticipate.  Carter had hoped to avoid interjecting an American proposal to discussions, and allow Begin and Sadat to talk face to face, expecting they would reach an agreement with American nudging.  This strategy was a failure, as Carter could not leave them alone in the same room.  What became clear by the sixth day of the conference was that the Begin-Sadat relationship, was at best “prickly,” and their interchanges were overly charged in dealing with things like who won the 1973 War and the amount of oil Israel was pumping from the Sinai.  If they argued bitterly over minor issues what would happen when territorial problems were discussed, the status of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian problem.  As Ezer Weitzmann, the Israeli Minister of Defense has related, “Anyone observing the two men could not have overlooked their profound divergence in their attitudes.  Both desired peace.  But whereas Sadat wanted to take it by storm….Begin preferred to creep forward inch by inch.  He took the dream of peace and ground it into the fine, dry powder of details, legal clauses, and quotes from international law.”(98)  After taking his guests for a visit to the Gettysburg National Battlefield, Carter shifted his approach from a facilitator to a catalyst in conducting the talks.  This change along with Carter’s doggedness and commitment are in large part responsible for the final success of the summit.

Wright provides the reader with brief biographies of each of the participants.  Based on Carter’s engineering mindset and the skills he had developed over the years he was able to parse the language of written documents and make them mostly acceptable.  His religious background drove him until he could achieve his goals.  Begin was a prisoner of his past, be it his imprisonment in Siberia, the Holocaust, fighting the British after World War II as the leader of the Irgun, as all played into his narrow world view.  From childhood onward, Sadat believed he was special and history had a place for him to accomplish great things, as he was open to all challenges whether allying with the Nazis during World War II, his own imprisonment, or unlikely political rise.  Wright separates his narrative by employing chapters for each day of the conference.  As he explains the daily events he integrates background history so the reader can understand the importance of each issue.  If the contemporary history is not enough, Wright then goes on to discuss the Biblical stories and explanations that pertain to each issue.  Wright also enjoys tackling different myths associated with the conflict, i.e.; he argues that Israel actually was not outnumbered by the Arab armies during the 1948 War; he also argues that David Ben-Gurion and the Haganah were involved with the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1947 killing 81 people and that Begin agreed to place the blame for the attack on the Irgun.

Egyptian soldiers firing on Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981.

Makaram Gad Alkareem  /  AFP – Getty Images, file

(Assassins posing as Egyptian soldiers fire on President Anwar Al-Sadat in Cairo on Oct. 6, 1981.)

Wright tells his story and makes his arguments in a very concise manner and the narrative is very readable and provides the basis for understanding a great deal about issues that remain unresolved today.  If there are areas that Wright could improve upon I would suggest he integrate greater use of primary sources into his work.  He relies overly on secondary sources.  I commend his command of these sources but at times he draws conclusions from the monographs he uses that are incorrect.   In discussing the Suez Crisis of 1956 he leaves out important points, i.e.; when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal he makes it sound as if it came out of the blue, and there is no mention of the fact that he was reacting to the withdrawal of the American loan to build the Aswan Dam.  Further, I feel that at times the author gets bogged down in his repeated rendering of Biblical stories.  I would rather have had him delve further into the negotiations and provide his analysis which was for the most part excellent.

Overall, Wright’s contribution to the literature of the Arab-Israeli conflict is to be applauded.  The analysis he presents in his Epilogue is dead on as the summit papered over the Palestinian problem and it can be argued that this failure contributed greatly to recent events in Gaza.  What is also important as Wright points out is that Camp David took Egypt out of the equation and “without a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people.”(288)

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