Thirteen Days in September:
Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David
By Lawrence Wright
Alfred A. Knopf
It’s hard to believe the Camp David meetings took place more than 36 years ago. And equally hard to believe that only now are we getting a book about them as good as Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for the New Yorker.
As Wright explains, the Camp David meetings were originally supposed to last only a few days and U.S. president Jimmy Carter did not intend to play a significant role in the discussions. He felt that the rural surroundings of Camp David – the presidential retreat in Maryland – away from the press and their own governments, would allow Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to reach conclusions and sign agreements that had so far eluded them.
As it turned out, the meetings lasted 13 days in 1978 and, although there were moments of friendship, and a handshake when needed for the camera, neither Begin nor Sadat found an ally in the other man. How could they? They not only had to face fractious governments on their return, but their own advisory teams were by no means united behind the leaders. If anything, Begin and Sadat spent more time trying to make an ally of Carter than of working with each other. And, against his inclinations, Carter had to accept that he could not just sit back as the genial host, but had to intervene directly in the talks and, ultimately, help draft the text of final documents.
Wright provides a day-by-day account of those 13 days, detailing the points of disagreement and the rather fewer points of agreement prior to the initial signing of the Camp David Accords at the White House on September 17, 1978, and the further, sometimes bitter, negotiations leading to the signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty on the White House lawn on March 26, 1979.
Wright details the numerous times when one or the other of the leaders was prepared to break off talks and go home. He does this not just as a reporter but, seemingly, as an observer –a politically astute fly on the wall. As a result, the book reads more like an adventure novel than a political treatise.
Like any good novel, the book provides background. Egypt was still on a high after what it saw as its near victory in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which erased much of the humiliation from the Six Day War in 1967. Israel, by contrast, is still in shock over its near disaster in 1973, which erased much of the euphoria from its victory in 1967. As a partial result, Sadat came to Camp David with a full document for agreement, whereas Begin came very wary of any document. Wright cites one Israeli as lamenting that a defeated government was dictating terms to the victor. Camp David did not begin well.
Wright inserts short biographies and bits of history to help readers understand why Begin and Sadat are flexible on some issues and stubborn on others. Many of the Israelis had participated in Israel’s War of Independence, and many of the Egyptians in the overthrow of Nasser’s regime. They knew not only about military actions, but also about guerilla tactics independent of the army. And they knew how to fake one position in order to get better terms on another.
Was Camp David a success or a failure? The final agreement consisted of two separate documents. The first was a formal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. As a treaty that has held for well over three decades without any war, some security co-operation and modest commercial relations, this part of the Camp David Accords is clearly a success.
The other part is an agreement about resolution of Palestinian issues, and, just as clearly, this part has not been a success, and likely was never expected to be. After all, no Palestinian was even invited to Camp David. As Wright notes, “Ambiguity played a double role at Camp David. Careful language was the key to making peace between Egypt and Israel, but vague phrases about negotiations with the Palestinians opened up escape clauses that Begin exploited.”
There is no better way to learn about those ambiguities, and how they were designed and argued over until agreement, flawed as it might be, was achieved than by reading Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.