Thirteen Days in September; The Dramatic Story of the Struggle for Peace by Lawrence Wright
- I finished this complex book a week ago and am still processing what I read
- 466 pages
I was born in the early 1970s, and the first president I can remember knowing anything about was Jimmy Carter. Back then, most houses had one television, and at a certain hour of the day, news was what the adults wanted to watch. Today, when I have a chance to read some quality history from the 1970s, I invariably recall what I thought I knew about the world when I was a kid. Gaps fill in. Overheard conversations make more sense. Lawrence Wright’s book offers a substantial block of material about the Carter administration’s foreign policy and the two other principal players in the 1970s Middle East: Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. After finishing this book, some gaps have filled in, but I’m not sure even a skilled author like Wright could make this tale make more sense.
Jimmy Carter is nominally the central figure in this book, as much of it is written from his point of view and presented in a narrative style. However, Begin and Sadat are the two characters who really drive this difficult tale. Carter knows he is unpopular and wants to make his historical mark with a peace summit before he loses reelection, but even this skilled negotiator has his work cut out for him with these two principals.
Each man is profoundly different. Anwar Sadat makes grand gestures and thinks in broad strokes and big ideas. He is willing to make the big bets and take the big chances. Begin, meanwhile, considers every detail and maintains laser-like focus on his particular, often narrow, objectives. Each man has been imprisoned for his beliefs and the actions compelled by them. Each man’s bitter experiences as prisoner informs and hardens his viewpoint, but that is the limit of their common ground.
Begin and Sadat and Their Parties
Begin and the Israelis show up with the same attitude as a gaggle of teenage cousins stuck spending Saturday night at a bland family gathering. They know it’s going to be a waste of time before they deplane, but they can’t risk the diplomatic blowback from insulting the Americans. Begin resents being dragged to the U.S. for what he considers a diplomatic sham, and his crabby mood pervades the entire complement.
Sadat, meanwhile, views this summit as an excellent chance to build a stronger diplomatic relationship with the United States. Yes, Carter, will likely lose reelection, but any treaties developed at Camp David will outlast his presidency and create American obligations to Egypt. He can use the backup, frankly. The Arab nations nearby aren’t too impressed with him (in part because he holds elected office rather than royal right) and, like Begin, the Arab players don’t expect much to come out of this Camp David business.
Sadat’s entourage respects their charismatic and intelligent leader. They are in some ways an odd bunch, right down to the mystical sort who keeps insisting that Jerusalem needs to be made fully Muslim for soon-to-arrive Armageddon. Sadat mostly keeps this guy from speaking out of turn outside the Egyptian entourage—the sheer force of his personality keeps everyone in line. In each entourage, one or two men is regarded by the other party as the straight shooter, the guy who can be…if not trusted, then at least taken seriously. Neither man is in charge.
Author Wright has given us 466 pages of palpable frustration. Carter is frustrated that Sadat thinks too big and, more often, that Begin thinks too small. Begin and his entourage are frustrated that they are still stuck in the hills of Maryland for more than a few days. This isn’t funny anymore: they have a country to run, and they want little more than a way to withdraw without looking bad. Sadat and Carter share in the frustration over items Begin considers non-negotiable. The chief among them are the Israeli settlements in Sinai and how to handle them. Every time Sadat or Carter makes a proposal, Begin or another Israeli diplomat seems receptive. When ideas get drafted, however, changes made to the proposal by the Israeli diplomats put everything right back where it started.
If it sounds like Begin is made out to be the villain of the piece, then consider his situation. Sadat hardly speaks for all of Israel’s neighbors, so getting dragged off to the U.S. to talk with Egyptian diplomats about settlements in the Sinai can’t solve all—or indeed most—of his foreign relations problems. A certain stubbornness has been a survival trait for his people as he understands them, so giving ground seems like weakness. Finally, he has attached some of his own political reputation to these Israeli settlements in the Sinai. He has made remarks about retiring to one, plus the settlements are more than paying for themselves by pumping oil to which Israel has not previously had access. He’s in no rush to decamp to within Israel’s previous borders, and these settlements prove the undoing of the entire Camp David misadventure.
This book has been a difficult one to digest, in no small part because there are dozens of minor players in addition to the three principals. Furthermore, Wright flashes back to other milestones in the lives of Sadat, Carter and Begin, sometimes without much warning. The reader needs this information to appreciate what is happening in Camp David, but having the timeline broken up requires deliberate attention from those among us who were children while all of this was going on. However, Wright’s book is beautifully presented in a narrative format with a great many photos to capture the mood (and mood swings!) at Camp David. He isn’t giving us an homage to President Carter, or a grim opinion of the states involved or their leaders, but he does present us with some significant food for thought about whether peace is possible in this region at all.