In This Review

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
By Lawrence Wright
368 pp, Knopf, 2014
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Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. By LAWRENCE WRIGHT. Knopf, 2014, 368 pp. $27.95.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, by New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright, arrives at a grimly appropriate time. In recent years, the Middle East has descended into chaos. A bloody, many-sided civil war rages in Syria; Libya has devolved into warlordism; Iraq has continuously failed to form a government capable of unifying the country; and Israeli-Palestinian discord has continued unabated. Meanwhile, the region has become an arena for an array of proxy struggles: Sunni Saudi Arabia against Shiite Iran and their respective confederates; the conservative Sunni states of the Gulf Cooperation Council against the pro–Muslim Brotherhood Turkey and Qatar; and al Qaeda–affiliated Islamists against the revolutionary Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

For policymakers in the United States, this has been a vexing set of problems. After some delay, U.S. President Barack Obama seems to have accepted that, absent U.S. involvement, the Middle East will continue to disintegrate, with dire consequences for both the region and the rest of the world. But even as Washington has taken the lead in addressing the ISIS threat, it seems uncertain of how to restore order to the Middle East -- or whether it is even capable of doing so.

Wright’s book offers a useful reminder of the most prominent instance of the United States not only propping up but also creating that order. The book examines the negotiations between U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat over the course of two weeks at Camp David in September 1978. The resulting Egyptian-Israeli peace deal remains the one shred of regional fabric that has not torn in the years since. Drawing on diaries, interviews, and archival materials, Wright offers a gripping day-by-day account of the diplomatic wrangling interspersed with historical context.

But when Wright attempts to draw broader conclusions about Washington’s role in the talks, he misinterprets the evidence. He suggests that the United States spearheaded the agreement at Camp David, breaking the shackles of religion, history, and geopolitics that had previously ensnared the parties and prevented them from making concessions. The reality is that Camp David succeeded because Egypt and Israel were both well aware that a peace deal was in their own interests. Washington, in short, played the role of consolidator, not catalyst. This is the lesson that Washington should now heed as it attempts to rescue what it can and stitch together a new order in the Middle East.

INTRODUCING THE CAST

In an author's note at the outset of the book, Wright establishes his interpretation of the peace talks. The story of Camp David, he writes, is the story of leaders enduring “the difficulty of shedding the mythologies that continue to lure societies into conflict.” The chief culprit, according to Wright, is religion. Various “beliefs built on ancient texts and legends” formed one of the most “obdurate conflicts of modern times.” Thirteen Days sets out to explore how “three flawed men,” Carter, Begin, and Sadat, “strengthened but also encumbered by their faiths,” managed to “solve a dispute that religion itself had largely caused.” In Wright’s mind, the negotiations, at their core, represented two weeks of wrenching free from the prejudices of the past. 

Wright opens this saga by exploring the psychologies of the main players. He begins with Carter, midway through his only term as president, reading his CIA briefing book ahead of the Camp David negotiations. A peanut-farming former governor of Georgia, he did not meet an Arab “until he sat next to one at a stock car race in Daytona” and knew only one Jew as a child, his uncle Louis. His image of the Middle East was tinted by Bible study, with the “geography of ancient Palestine . . . more familiar to him than . . . most of the United States.” Upon entering the White House in 1977, he made Middle East peace a top priority. Carter believed that “God wanted him to bring peace, and that somehow he would find a way to do so.” He would devote an inordinate amount of time to the peace process as the U.S. economy plummeted alongside his poll numbers.

A trained engineer, Carter believed, in Wright’s words, that “any problem can be solved if it is attacked with conviction, intelligence, and persistence.” Yet the U.S. president would need much more than that to cajole Begin and Sadat. According to the CIA briefer, Sadat was a “visionary,” who saw himself as a “grand strategic thinker blazing like a comet through the skies of history.” Infatuated with big ideas and gestures, he “was indifferent to trifling details.” Begin, meanwhile, was a trained lawyer fixated on the meaning behind the smallest distinctions. Where Sadat prized colorful clothing, Begin owned only two baggy, outworn suits when he first traveled to Washington. Where Sadat dreamed of rewriting the past, Begin was prone to emphasizing the “tragic conundrum of Jewish history” that weighed heavily on him.

Wright’s keen perception of personality extends to the supporting cast. The Israeli delegation included the one-eyed military hero Moshe Dayan and the air force ace Ezer Weizman, hardened combat veterans more open to agreement than their prime minister. The Egyptian delegates, such as the intransigent Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel and the Coptic patrician (and future UN Secretary-General) Boutros Boutros-Ghali, spent as much time divining the moods of their president as they did contemplating the Israeli position. Sadat also drew strength from Hassan el-Tohamy, an eccentric former intelligence agent who served as his “astrologer, court jester, and spiritual guru.” Tohamy boasted of his ability to leave his body and travel outside of the physical universe and spent most of his time at Camp David attempting to convert Boutros-Ghali to Islam. But he also played a key role in the genesis of the talks. After a secret encounter with Begin in Morocco in 1977 that was arranged by King Hassan II, he told Sadat that Begin planned to withdraw from all the territories that Israel had occupied after the 1967 war -- an erroneous report that spurred Sadat to travel to Jerusalem. Ever watchful for moments at which history hinges on individuals, Wright notes that “it is entirely possible that the Middle East peace process was set in motion by the misunderstanding of a madman.”

TAKING THE LEAD

Carter hoped that the placid woods of Camp David would allow Begin and Sadat to discard their bluster and hammer out an accord that would leave both countries better off. He expected a deal by day three, but the talks did not begin well. With alarming nonchalance, Sadat told Carter on the first day that as long as Israel withdrew from Sinai, the U.S. president could negotiate the rest for him. Carter wondered whether Sadat “fully understood what would be asked of him.” But imbued with what Wright describes as a “stunning degree of hubris,” as well as a proclivity for historical escapism, Carter immediately empathized with the Egyptian president. Meanwhile, seeing Begin arrive in suit and tie, Carter encouraged him to dress casually, ruffling the decorum-obsessed Israeli leader. Carter was not impressed either. Begin, he told his advisers after the first night of discussions, “seemed rigid and unimaginative, parsing every syllable.”

Carter began the conference by playing the role of passive mediator. He thought the two men could crawl their way toward peace with the United States merely mediating. But according to Wright, the plan backfired. The Israeli team greeted the initial Egyptian salvo -- in Wright’s words, “page after page of uncompromising Arab boilerplate” -- with horror. (Carter could not reveal that Sadat had actually drafted a more conciliatory plan in secret.) On day three, Begin insisted on reading aloud the Egyptian proposal line by line to Carter, “treating individual words and phrases as if he were spitting out poison.” An explosive meeting among the three leaders later that morning devolved into a shouting match, with Sadat demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from Sinai and Begin adamantly opposing it. By the evening, Wright says, “it was clear that [the Egyptians] were on the verge of leaving,” and Carter launched the first of seemingly countless efforts to prevent the parties from abandoning the summit. 

Lacking patience, subtlety, or charm, Carter nonetheless succeeded in driving the talks forward, according to Wright, alternately begging, soothing, berating, and threatening. With a sportscaster’s intuition for momentum, Wright captures the key turning points. The first came on day four. Haggling over Israeli settlements in Sinai, Begin said he would “never personally recommend” their dismantlement. Carter seized on what Wright calls this “legalistic formulation” as a sign that Begin might move -- if others would push.

The president shifted his strategy. Originally a “camp counselor,” he became a “catalyst,” willing to issue proposals and, if necessary, threats on behalf of the United States. A tussle between Carter and Begin over a U.S. draft revealed that Dayan and Weizman, who openly disagreed with their prime minister, might serve as allies to the United States. On day nine, to cut the warring Begin and Sadat out of the process, Carter engaged in an unprecedented negotiation with junior members of the Israeli and Egyptian teams. The president then headed off a near exit staged by Sadat on day 11 by accusing him of betrayal. And in a rare display of tenderness, Carter rescued the talks at the last moment by giving Begin signed pictures from the negotiations addressed to his grandchildren. After two weeks of bare-knuckle negotiations, the parties finally signed the Camp David Accords at the White House.

THE REVENGE OF HISTORY

Wright punctuates this blow-by-blow retelling with a series of mini-histories. These intermissions detail everything from the revolutionary exploits of Begin and Sadat to the relationship between Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. Wright offers these intermissions not just to flesh out the psychology of the players but also to emphasize the sometimes millennia-long prejudices -- religion above all -- holding them back.

Yet the interludes tend to distract and confuse as much as explain. A long retelling of the story of the Exodus, for example, sheds little light on the political conflict between modern-day Israel and Egypt. And too often, the vignettes verge on editorializing. For example, several times, Wright’s frustration with historical baggage boils over, with Begin the most frequent target of his ire. Although Wright chides Carter and Sadat for their mysticism, he saves his most potent criticism for the Israeli prime minister. Largely adopting Carter’s view, he portrays Begin as a towering intellect who is hampered by pride and paranoia, saddled with a retrograde devotion to Jewish blood over that of others.

Begin is the chief antagonist of Thirteen Days not because the book dismisses Israel’s claims, but because he stands most forthrightly athwart its vision of the U.S. role in the Middle East. The region, in Wright’s view, must move past its “antique grudges” toward a rational future -- and the United States must assume responsibility for pushing it in that direction. The warring, tribelike confederations of the Middle East, clinging to their legends and jealousies, must be forced ahead with the devotion that Carter displayed at Camp David. Even as Wright dismisses Carter’s naive assumption that placing Israelis and Egyptians in cabins would produce peace, he praises the motivation and lauds the former president for learning on the fly. 

More than an attempt to rehabilitate Carter’s legacy, Thirteen Days is an attempt to rehabilitate his approach to Middle East diplomacy. Wright does not endorse each and every tactic used by the former president. And he insinuates that the unfinished business at Camp David -- most notably, an agreement on the Palestinian front -- may have rendered future U.S. peacemaking far more difficult. But he seems to say this with regret, wishing for a world in which the United States might still come to the rescue. 

LEADING FROM BEHIND

Many expected Israeli-Egyptian peace to spur broader regional reconciliation. And there have been some auspicious events in the wake of the Camp David agreement. Israel and Jordan would later sign an accord in 1994. The Jewish state and its Arab neighbors now regularly have contact with one another through clandestine channels.

Yet peace between Egypt and Israel has failed to pave the way for a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Wright judges this an indictment of the Camp David negotiations and of U.S. leadership. He notes that several participants at the talks feared that a treaty leaving the Palestinian question unanswered would “set loose the furies within radical Islam.” Carter’s decision to forgo comprehensive peace represents a key moment in Thirteen Days. By permitting Egypt to “[sever] its link to the Palestinian cause,” Wright argues, Carter allowed Palestine to become “a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage” to prospects for peace.

But in asserting that the Camp David negotiations should have been more expansive, Wright may have failed to appreciate the true motivations of the participants. In an event given passing mention, Carter, Begin, and Sadat broke from the negotiations on the eighth day to issue a joint statement expressing support for the shah of Iran, swept from the throne less than six months later by Iranian revolution. Wright views peace between Jerusalem and Cairo as a historic achievement that nonetheless sowed some seeds of the present destruction. But the statement on the shah suggests another reading: Egyptian-Israeli peace as an early bulwark against already impending collapse.

According to this interpretation, the United States did not rescue the Middle East from religious fervor at Camp David. Instead, it underwrote the already initiated efforts of two countries battling through excruciating diplomacy to realize their common interests and, eventually, to combat common adversaries. Camp David, then, may offer a model for a more modest U.S. approach to the modern Middle East than Wright suggests, one in which Washington aims to consolidate common interests among potential allies in the region. That may be a far cry from serving as a catalyst for a permanent peace, but it’s an important role nonetheless.

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  • JORDAN CHANDLER HIRSCH is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School and a Visiting Fellow at the Columbia University Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. Follow him on Twitter @jordanchirsch.
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