Review of "Thirteen Days in September" by Lawrence Wright

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp DavidThirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pretty good accounting of the Camp David Agreement forged by President Jimmy Carter. Lawrence Wright manages to weave in some history of the Arab-Israeli conflict to go along with the very good accounting he gives us of the Camp David summit. After the historical trip to Jerusalem by President Anwar Sadat of Egypt President Jimmy Carter undertook an effort to translate that trip into a tangible peace. Carter’s efforts led to the Camp David summit, where Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his team were essentially locked down with Sadat and his team for thirteen long days. Wright shows us what a difficult process that was, and how an accord was reached in spite of the vast gulf between the Israeli and Egyptian positions.

Sadat comes off as the greater risk taker for peace in this book, and I think Wright has given us a fair evaluation of the main players, their motivations, and especially their limitations. Sadat, a Vice President under Egyptian strongman Gamel Abdel Nasser, had always been underestimated by the international community until he made some rather stunning political and diplomatic moves that opened the eyes of that community. Wright gives us an overview of how the multiple wars between Egypt and Israel impacted the diplomatic views of the two delegations, and the real animus that existed between the parties. While Wright does engage in some psycho-analysis it is very apparent that the 1967 Six Day War, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, launched by Sadat, left indelible marks on all of the participants, weighing heavily on them as they tried to bridge the enormous gulf that separated them.

Wright is less charitable towards the Israeli Prime Minister Begin, but I do believe he tries to treat the subject matter in an even handed way. We manage to catch glimpses (and some good history) of some of the very large names involved in this process. Vance, Brzezinski, Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon,Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and many others.

President Carter deserves much praise for his efforts. Without his determined resolve the Camp David process would have collapsed, as it very nearly did on several occasions. Carter was not perfect in this effort, but few are when dealing with the intractable issues that separate the parties in the Middle East. The Accord itself was rescued by Carter putting his and American prestige on the line at key times, making clear that American “friendship” and all that implies would be at risk to the party that ended the discussion without agreement. Carter used the Kissinger tactic of trying to bridge difficult issues with strategically imprecise language that could be construed different ways, and sold to domestic constituencies in ways that were less damaging politically. The notable failure was the inability to solve the “Palestinian” issue, essentially concentrating on an Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in return for a bilateral peace with Egypt. President Clinton ventured down that road in 2000 by bringing the Israelis and the Palestinians back to Camp David to try to hammer out a deal that would have addressed those issues punted by Carter, Begin and Sadat. The Clinton failure at the 2000 summit shows me how monumental Carter’s efforts were here.

Sadat ended up paying for his efforts by being assassinated by extremists opposed to his efforts. Carter lost his bid for re-election, and Begin continued on until he retired and became a recluse. I doubt whether any effort like this would even be possible anymore, as having the heads of three countries locked down for thirteen days likely could not happen. If you want a good accounting of a key part of the history of Israel and the Middle East I would recommend this book.

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