To those of us either too young to remember or not yet alive, the late 70s were an especially precarious time in the history of the United States, especially in comparison to the comfortable, almost complacent hegemony enjoyed by the US following the fall of the Soviet Union leading up to 9/11. Anemic growth and high inflation plagued the domestic economy, while the Soviets and their alternative path of development continued to expand and flex their physical and technological might around the world.
Beyond this context, the failure of the Vietnam War, Nixon’s Watergate scandal, and President Gerald Ford’s subsequent pardoning of Nixon were all ingredients leading to the election of Jimmy Carter, an outsider with limited political experience and an uncharacteristically dovish, religious profile rarely seen among serious Presidential contenders. Then and today, the election of Jimmy Carter is seen as a historical anomaly in US politics.
Similarly, the perception of Israel as a first-world desert oasis and security and technology leader was hardly the position of Israel just 30 years after the UN declaration and subsequent Arab-Israeli War that led to Israel’s independence. In that timespan, Israel won two hard fought wars in 1967 (Six-Day War) and 1973 (Yom Kippur War), as well as participating in numerous skirmishes against its neighboring Arab countries. As a result of these victories, Israel amassed land beyond its initial 1948 partition-planned border, including an post-war occupation of the Sinai peninsula bordering Egypt, as well as the infamous West Bank and Gaza Strip regions.
Israel’s ongoing existential crisis, as well as the resignation of Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin, led to the election of Menachem Begin, known to Israelis as the head of the Israeli militant group Irgun. Begin immigrated to Israel after losing a majority of his family at the hands of the Nazis, leading to a lifelong distrust of foreign countries, allies and enemies alike, and a call for a robust Israeli military to secure the newly-acquired borders. Begin’s distrust, as well as his biblical belief in the Jewish people’s right to its land, led to his election, as he promised the Israeli people of their right to populate the Sinai area, as well as settle there someday himself, a pronounced statement of his belief in Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territory.
Egypt, both the aggressor and defeated party in the 1967 and 1973 Wars, was in a profoundly weakened geopolitical and economic position, and their President, Anwar Sadat, saw the establishment of peace and normalized relations with Israel as a first step towards a broader relationship with the United States, securing needed economic support in the process, and leading to a restoration of Egyptian leadership in the Middle East.
Carter, Begin, and Sadat, as well as their Ministers and aides, are the protagonists of Lawrence Wright’s account of the Camp David Accords, Thirteen Days in September, a fascinating account of Carter’s attempts to create a lasting peace between Egypt and Israel, as well as solve the Palestinian question. Through detailed diaries and reflections from the key actors, Wright provides a comprehensive look at unorthodox retreat organized by President Carter that led to the establishment of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, known in the United States as the Camp David Accords.
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, by Lawrence Wright (Knopf 2014)
Over 15 chapters, one for each day of the drawn-out negotiations and one chapter helpfully bookending the process, Wright provides the day-to-day diplomatic details of the negotiations. Beyond his intimate recounting of the events themselves, Wright shares important historical context leading up to and informing the summit, drawing all the way back to biblical times, as well as shedding light on the individual perspective and contexts that the protagonists took into the negotiation.
Wright helpfully makes no attempts to paper over some of the less savory aspects of Israel’s post-1948 history, forcing the reader to grapple with the moral and political questions that envelope Israel’s history: nationhood, war, and ideological, territorial, and existential defense. Throughout the book, Wright reminds the readers human toll that had been suffered on all sides of the conflict, and the importance of achieving peace and normalized relations between Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian people.
Wright’s broader expertise on the making of the modern Middle East, deftly displayed in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Looming Tower and his ongoing reportage for the New Yorker, provides helpful geopolitical context on Egypt’s position in the Arab world and Sadat’s atypical willingness to engage with the Israelis, and the risk taken by Anwar Sadat. Sadat’s need to restore relations with the United States risked alienation from other Arab countries in the region, as well as defiance from radical and extremist elements within his own country, and ultimately led to his eventual demise at the hands of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad just two years after the signing of the Treaty.
Today, it is easy to take for granted the achievement of a longstanding peace between Israel and Egypt, but I came away from this book with an appreciation for the audacity of President Carter to engage with both sides and work towards a historic accord. Similarly, the failure to reach agreement on the Palestinian question, as Carter was ultimately unable to stop the continued growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, nor make good on his attempt to secure Palestinian autonomy, stands as the core tragedy of the Camp David Summit.
While history, and Carter’s failures on domains outside of the Israeli/Egyptian question, have not been kind to Carter, Begin’s Defense Minister, Ezer Weizman, is unequivocal at the end of Wright book, claiming that Jimmy Carter did as much for Israel as any US President in Israel’s modern history.
To those who deem the Palestinian / Israeli conflict a forever war, incapable of settlement, should look to President Carter’s leadership and example in bringing the Israelis and Egyptians to the table as inspiration, as capably recounted in this terrific book.