Monday, January 19, 2015

Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David
”It is striking that, in a region as intimate as the Middle East, cultural ignorance and political miscalculation have played such perverse roles. By attacking the new country of Israel in 1948, the Arabs lost the chance to create an entity for Palestine. Through its policy of expulsion of the native population, Israel destabilized its neighbors and created a reservoir of future terrorists that was continually refreshed by new wars and population transfers.”

In surely what is the most intimately detailed report of the Carter Camp David Accords collected for public consumption, Lawrence Wright gives us a look at the men who came to that place in 1978 to wage peace. Chapter headings mark the thirteen days of talks, and within each day we are treated to the increasingly stuffy and claustrophobic internal debates which contrasted with the comfortable and laid-back atmosphere of the country playground.

As the chapters unfold, so do brief histories and biographies of the men who played a role: Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan; Israeli Minister of Defence Ezer Weizman; Prime Minister of Israel and leader of the minority coalition Likud, Menachem Begin; Egypt’s deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Tohamy; Egypt’s new Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel; Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski; U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance; American first-term President Jimmy Carter.

The men are merely men, with all the ticks, scars, and faults of men. What is so breathtaking is that the lives of so many depended on these men acting like statesmen. By meeting at Camp David, all three men were taking huge political risks for their own lives and careers. One might argue that the risks never left the personal realm. None of them really took risks with the nations they represented. Carter continued to financially and politically support both countries, Begin never changed his determination to settle confiscated lands, and Egypt simply withdrew support for Palestinians it had previously protected.

Wright concentrates his focus on the Israeli and Egyptian delegations. We get a look at Jimmy and Roslyn Carter, their background and rise to prominence in Washington, and Jimmy Carter’s team of advisors, but we get a more detailed look at what was happening in the other camps as talks progressed through two weeks in September. We learn, too, of the wars fought in the name of ‘legitimate rights’ which brought these men to Camp David.

There was a dangling thread that did not get resolved at Camp David, though two of the three parties believed it had been resolved. In the months after the agreement was signed, that dangling thread became part of the noose which helped to hang the careers of Carter and Sadat: Menachem Begin claimed he had not agreed to a settlement freeze while discussions with Palestinians continued but only for three months. Without the side letter that Carter and Sadat believed Begin had promised to produce, the concession was moot and not part of the original accord.

Begin returned to Israel triumphant, only to lose his closest advisors to resignations for his continued unwillingness to honor the spirit of the agreement he’d signed. Sadat was murdered by his own people three years later. Carter, having spent so much time on the effort of achieving the peace, had neglected his other duties and lost much support among his party and his electorate.

The agreement came at a time in Arab-Israeli relations when any observer could not be blamed for feeling despair. The Israelis were gloating and acting invincible with America’s money and support. The Palestinians were further marginalized and weakened by their loss of Egyptian backing and lack of good leadership. The conditions spelled out in the agreement continue to hold, but there is little sense of jubilation now.

This book must have been a difficult one to research and write, which only manages to shine a light on Wright’s achievement. He captures the ups and downs of high-stakes negotiation and gives us a feel for the real work involved in the process. There is little exhilaration here. Mostly there was just terror and relief.

In a final note, Wright tells the story of one of Begin’s closest advisors, Ezer Weizman, who was known to be a raging hawk when it came to protecting Israel with military might. One day his son was shot between the eyes in an engagement. At that point Weizman began to see the futility of war. Man seems determined to learn this lesson again and again, and not ever soon enough.


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