Lawrence Wright, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David (New York: Knopf, 2014), 368 pp., $27.95.
I REMEMBER sitting on the carpet on the typist’s living-room floor in a London suburb collating, in stacks, the original and carbon copies of my PhD dissertation. The next day I was to deliver the copies to the Faculty of History in Cambridge. It was evening, November 19, 1977, and in the center of the TV screen, live, appeared Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, his arms raised and a big, perhaps nervous, smile across his face, white teeth glittering in the spotlight, as he emerged from the door of the Boeing that had flown him from Cairo to Tel Aviv. It was a historic moment, of course, but it was also surreal and magical; indeed, it was almost messianic, bearing with it a foretaste of peace and the promise of deliverance after decades of unremitting Arab-Israeli warfare.
Almost thirty years earlier, on May 15, 1948, Arab armies, including Egypt’s, had crossed the frontiers and invaded the territory of the State of Israel, established the day before. During the following decades, the Arab states maintained a comprehensive boycott of Israel, and in effect waged a low-key guerrilla war along its frontiers. Periodically, Egypt and Israel met in full-scale conventional battle, and no Arab leader openly met or spoke with an Israeli. Indeed, Arab leaders refrained from even uttering the taboo name “yisraeel” (Israel).
The idea that an Arab head of state—and especially the head of the Arab world’s most important state, Egypt, which had traumatized Israel four years earlier when its army had lunged across the Suez Canal into the Israeli-held Sinai—would fly to Israel and shake the hands of Israel’s recently installed right-wing prime minister, Menachem Begin, and Ariel Sharon, the general who had led the Israeli countercharge across the canal in October 1973, was simply inconceivable.
Yet, there I was, along with probably 99 percent of Israelis, at home and abroad, staring at the TV screen, mouth agape. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised. After all, it was Egypt in February 1949 that was the first among the Arab states to reach an armistice agreement with Israel, ending its participation in the 1948 war; Lebanon, Jordan and Syria rapidly followed. And in the early 1970s, Sadat had secretly and repeatedly informed Israel, under Prime Minister Golda Meir, that he was interested in reaching an interim agreement or a nonbelligerency agreement or even full peace—it was never really clear which—with the Jewish state. But Meir and her senior ministers didn’t believe that he was sincere or thought the price he was asking was too high, or both, and nothing came of these overtures, and so we got the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Still, Sadat’s appearance on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport four years later was little short of astonishing; nothing that followed could be anything but anticlimactic. Now we have Lawrence Wright’s description of the first major anticlimax, the Camp David conference of September 1978, when, during thirteen days of often-bitter negotiations between Begin, Sadat and the mediating U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, the three leaders hammered out the framework of an accord that would result in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed by the same threesome on the White House lawn on March 26, 1979.
Let it be quickly said that perhaps no less remarkable than the signing of that treaty is the fact that the peace it delivered has held ever since. In 1979, many—Israelis and others—predicted that it would not last, that the Egyptians were insincere, that Sadat’s successors would not honor his signature and that Arab-Israeli warfare elsewhere in the Middle East would inevitably suck in the Egyptians. They were wrong.
The accord remains one of the few stable fixtures in a region that has known nothing but turmoil and wars (and, most recently, revolutions and civil war) during the past three and a half decades. The peace survived Sadat’s assassination by Islamist fanatics, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the first Gulf War and Iraq’s missile assault on Israel, the first and second Palestinian intifadas against Israel, and even the year or two of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. True, the peace between Egypt and Israel never evolved into a warm one. There is almost no trade between the two countries, Egyptians are not allowed by their government to visit Israel (though many Israelis have toured Egypt), and the Egyptian education system, media and professional associations (doctors, lawyers, artists) have remained implacably hostile toward the Jewish state. But even the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi didn’t tear up the treaty, tacitly acknowledging that the peace served Egypt’s national interests, bringing in American largesse and freeing the country from the constant expenditure of blood and treasure that the fight for Palestine, or the Palestinians, has entailed since 1948.
WRIGHT, WHO previously published a marvelous study about Al Qaeda and the lead-up to 9/11, The Looming Tower, has now written a workmanlike history of Camp David, devoting a chapter to each of the thirteen days of the talks. Most of the chapters also contain “flashbacks,” in which Wright traces a variety of historical themes pertaining, in some way, to what happened at Camp David—including the course of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948; the 1973 Yom Kippur War; Carter’s, Begin’s and Sadat’s political biographies; and even a retelling of the biblical stories of the exodus from Egypt and Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. Taken together, the “flashbacks” provide a sort of thumbnail history of the whole conflict.
His account is based almost exclusively on memoirs and secondary works, with a sprinkling of interviews with participants, including Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Walter Mondale, Gerald Rafshoon (Carter’s press adviser) and Yehiel Kadishai (a Begin aide). Wright has not tapped any archive or collection of private political papers, which, in terms of proper historiography, necessarily renders the book an interim assessment at best, and he doesn’t add much of real substance above and beyond what William Quandt presented in his 1986 work Camp David, except in terms of anecdote.
Some of the anecdotes Wright has mobilized from memoirs and interviews are eye-opening and historically significant. He certainly adds to our understanding of the psychological dimensions of what transpired. One of the more moving episodes he describes—the summiteers’ excursion to Gettysburg, on the sixth day of the conference—probably had a real impact on Begin. One of Carter’s great-grandfathers had fought there, and the president “emotionally” related the story of the Confederate failure and what had followed—the devastation and defeat of the South—to his guests. When Carter got to Lincoln’s famous address, Begin, in a Polish accent, suddenly chimed in, and recited by heart the classic 272-word speech. Rosalynn told Wright that perhaps, for Begin, that was “a turning point,” when he realized how beneficial peace might be for Israel.
In another luminous anecdote, Wright relates that on the final day, at a moment when it appeared that an argument over an American side letter to the Egyptians on the issue of Jerusalem had annoyed Begin and was about to scuttle the summit, Carter signed a bunch of photos of the three summiteers “with love” and inscribed each with the name of one of Begin’s grandchildren. Begin had merely asked Carter to sign and give him some photographs. A depressed Carter walked over to Begin’s cabin to hand them over. Wright recounts:
“Mr. Prime Minister, I brought you the photographs you asked for,” Carter said.
“Thank you, Mr. President.”
Carter handed Begin the photographs and the prime minister coolly thanked him again. Then he noticed that Carter had signed the top photograph “To Ayelet.”
Begin froze. He looked at the next one. “To Osnat.” His lip trembled and tears suddenly sprang into his eyes. . . . Carter also broke down. “I wanted to be able to say ‘This is when your grandfather and I brought peace to the Middle East,’” he said.
Begin relented and agreed to a slightly modified side letter on Jerusalem. The talks were saved.
But the days leading up to that moment were a difficult, almost Sisyphean haul. Wright suggests, perhaps correctly, that Camp David was launched because of a “misunderstanding by a madman.” The madman in question was Hassan Tohamy, the Egyptian deputy prime minister and an old intelligence hand (in the 1950s, he had orchestrated anti-Israeli terrorist attacks). In September 1977, Sadat had sent him on a secret mission—to personally sound out, in Morocco, Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan about what Israel was willing to give up for peace with Egypt. According to conventional wisdom, Dayan assured Tohamy—who by most accounts was quite crazy (Tohamy, a Sufi mystic, maintained that he could stop his heartbeat at will and that he was in conversation with God and dead saints)—that Israel was willing to give back all of the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, in exchange for peace. But according to Wright, Tohamy said to Sadat that Dayan had told him that Begin was willing “to withdraw from [all] the occupied territories,” not just from Sinai. This was certainly untrue and there is no way that Dayan would have said such a thing; indeed, it is by no means certain that Dayan even explicitly assured Tohamy that Israel was willing to concede the whole of Sinai.