Book Reviews

"Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David," by Lawrence Wright

By Book Review Editor
Monday, November 10, 2014, 9:15 AM

Published by Knopf (2014)

Reviewed by Peter Baker

On the morning of the 11th day, Cyrus Vance, the secretary of state, burst into President Jimmy Carter’s cabin. “Sadat is leaving,” he announced. Carter rushed to find Anwar al-Sadat, the Egyptian president, who indeed had packed to go. “Have you really thought about what this means?” Carter demanded. A walkout would mean the end of Egypt’s relationship with America. And he added, “It would probably mean the end of my presidency.”

In the end, Sadat stayed and two days later came the breakthrough, the landmark Camp David peace accord between Egypt and Israel that has endured to this day and formed perhaps the only real bedrock of stability in the Middle East. In his can't-put-down new book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, Lawrence Wright masterfully delivers the inside story of one of the least chronicled and most consequential events in modern times.

Today, the Camp David summit represents something of a talisman in Middle East diplomacy, but what’s really striking about Wright’s powerful narrative is just what a high-wire act the whole thing really was. It did not end Carter’s presidency, but it very well could have, and in fact came so close to a spectacular collapse that a prime-time speech announcing its failure was already being prepared. In the annals of the modern presidency, it’s hard to imagine a more daring, courageous, risky, ill-conceived and even reckless venture.

Carter had no real clue what he was doing when he brought Sadat and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel to the storied retreat in the Maryland mountains. While intimately familiar with the Bible, Carter had little real understanding of the treacherous cross-currents of the biblical region, nor did he have a real plan for peace. He assumed that reasonable people of good will could surely solve this problem if they escaped the pressures of their home environments and sat down to talk. Sound familiar?

That was about as wrong then as it is now. Just as President Obama would learn decades later, Carter found that reasonable is in the eye of the beholder and entrenched interests are hard to overcome. Carter brought Begin and Sadat into the same room and then largely remained quiet in hopes that they would find their own way, only to discover that the two would argue and squabble and fixate on small points as well as big with little hope of bridging the divide by themselves. Eventually, Carter concluded that he had to take charge and propose his own peace plan, then try to get the two to negotiate from that starting point, a process no less torturous.

At one point, a fed-up Carter took Begin and Sadat to the nearby Gettysburg battlefield, hoping to escape the increasingly cloistered confines of Camp David, and he impressed his guests with his visceral understanding as a man of the South of the long legacy of war on a people. Begin stunned the others by reciting, word for word, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in his distinctive Polish accent. But even that poignant moment ultimately brought the negotiators no closer to an accord.

Wright, the celebrated New Yorker writer and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower, proves the ideal narrator, even if he came to the project by an unusual route. Wright received a call one day in 2011 from Gerald Rafshoon, Carter’s communications director in the White House, proposing a play about the Camp David summit. Wright had spent time in Georgia, Israel and Egypt so it seemed a natural fit, and last spring “Camp David” was performed at the Arena Stage in Washington, attended one night by none other than Carter, who teared up at the depiction of his presidency’s high point.

The play presented only four real characters, the three leaders and Rosalynn Carter. But the book goes beyond that understandable dramatic reductionism to offer fuller histories on those four protagonists, as well as the other players at the summit. Especially fascinating are the parallels between Begin and Sadat’s early careers as, essentially, terrorists in pursuit of their mutually exclusive causes.

Yet almost as gripping as the divisions between the Israelis and Egyptians are the divisions within their delegations. In effect, they were polar opposite situations. Sadat was the only one among the Egyptians who really wanted a deal while Begin was the only one among the Israelis who didn’t.

Sadat’s foreign minister, Mohamed Kamel, secretly resigned in protest of his president’s willingness to agree, while Ezer Weizman, an Israeli adviser, grew so frustrated by his boss’s intransigence that he secreted himself in the Camp David movie theater and watched George C. Scott’s Patton five times. Carter, unsurprisingly, felt closer to Sadat, even though he too aggravated the president at times. Begin, on the other hand, Carter grew to really loathe. Returning to his cabin one night after a difficult day, he told Rosalynn before drifting off to sleep that he thought Begin was a “psycho.”

The talks foundered again and again not just over the truly difficult issues like Israeli settlements in Sinai but also over the most picayune details. At one point, they almost fell apart over the question of whether the agreement should refer to the “Palestinian People” or the “people of Palestine.” At another, they became consumed over whether to refer to “the legitimate rights” of the Palestinians as opposed to just “the rights.” Is there such a thing, Begin asked, as an illegitimate right?

In the end, Carter succeeded in part by simply wearing them down. After nearly two weeks, Begin and Sadat were going stir-crazy in the Maryland woods and desperate to leave. But Carter made it politically untenable for either to depart without an agreement. Neither wanted to be held responsible for the failure of the talks. And so the final agreement, more than is often realized today, was crafted to blur the real differences, not actually settling key disagreements and using ambiguous language that allowed each side to claim its own self-serving interpretation of what they had agreed to. It was smoke and mirrors. And yet it worked. That’s diplomacy – making progress where possible and papering over the remaining differences.

The obvious question is could it ever happen again? Most of Carter’s successors have tried, sometimes haltingly, to replicate his success by expanding Israel’s peace with Egypt to resolve the enduring dispute with the Palestinians and other Arabs. President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, managed to lure Israel and nearly all of its Arab antagonists, most notably Syria, to a summit in Madrid, which opened the door to progress after they left office that was eventually codified in Oslo, Norway. President Bill Clinton convened his own Camp David summit in his final summer in office, every bit as determined to forge a big peace deal as Carter had been, only to be frustrated by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who refused to sign.

Angry, Clinton later warned his successor, President George W. Bush, and the new secretary of state, Colin Powell that Arafat could not be trusted. Bush understandably reasoned that diving into the tar pit of the Middle East peace process was a waste of time, especially as long as Arafat was still around, and so he stayed out of it, much to the consternation of what has evolved into a virtual peace process industry. Only in his second term, when his next secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, argued that the Israeli-Arab dispute was still at the heart of many of the other issues they confronted in the Middle East, did Bush reluctantly agree to a summit in Annapolis, and it ended with much the same result.

Obama came to office with no more understanding of the region than Carter had and a pretty similar faith in his own powers of persuasion. After a year, though, he came to realize that there was a reason his predecessors had largely failed to force the two sides to move past their generations of grievances. “We overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that,” he said. “If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier,” he added, “we might not have raised expectations as high.” It was a lesson he would remember into his second term when he, like Bush, finally agreed to let another energetic secretary of state, this time John Kerry, give it a try if he wanted. But like Bush before him, Obama made little effort to invest himself in what he considered a losing proposition, and sure enough, the effort fell apart, almost on cue.

What Carter was willing to do was to gamble it all, to put his entire presidency on the line, to lock himself in the woods with the other major players and not come out without a deal. “We’ve failed,” he declared at one point during the summit, and it certainly seemed so. But his determination not to fail, and his willingness to fail if that’s what it came to, proved decisive in the end. It’s hard to know if another president could produce the same sort of result if he or she invested as much. But in this age of calculated risks, it’s hard to imagine we’ll ever find out.

(Peter Baker is Chief White House Correspondent for the New York Times; his latest book is Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House.)