Time We Gave Carter More Credit for Camp David, Says New Book

A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter revisits the Camp David talks that led to Egyptian-Israeli peace in 1979. He finds an American president who seemed to want a deal more than the warring parties.

Samuel Thrope
Samuel Thrope
From left: Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasping hands after signing the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979.
From left: Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Former Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasping hands after signing the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 1979.Credit: AP
Samuel Thrope
Samuel Thrope

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, by Lawrence Wright Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $27.95

The most impressive fact about the 1979 Camp David Accords that made peace between Israel and Egypt is that they very nearly didn’t happen. As Lawrence Wright reveals in his latest book, “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David,” animosity between the three leaders, dissent within the delegations, and misunderstandings and historically fueled mistrust repeatedly brought the negotiations to the brink of collapse. Bags packed and helicopters waiting, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had to be coaxed back more than once to their rustic wood cabins at the Maryland country retreat by President Jimmy Carter himself.

In charting the ups and downs of the summit, Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist best known for “The Looming Tower,” his 2005 study on the birth of Al-Qaida, brings his personal experience and talents as a storyteller to bear. In the book’s final pages, Wright discusses his own connection to the three stories that he weaves together in “Thirteen Days in September,” which began as a play, staged in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Having lived in Georgia when Carter was governor and ran for president, Wright was teaching at the American University in Cairo when Sadat assumed office, and spent several years reporting from Israel.

Beginning with Sadat’s groundbreaking trip to Jerusalem in 1977, Wright interweaves a blow-by-blow of proposals, rejections and reversals with penetrating portraits of the three leaders, the members of their negotiating teams, and the relationships between them. At the same time, “Thirteen Days in September” presents the historical and religious background that shaped the conflict and the positions of the Israelis, Egyptians and Americans who gathered at Camp David. The result is a psychologically astute and lively history of the Arab-Israeli conflict told through the lens of the negotiations that brought one of its most bitter and bloody chapters to an end.

However, in the aftermath of the failure of another American-brokered peace initiative this past April, and the outbreak of another round of terrible violence between Israelis and Palestinians that followed, Wright’s timely book presents a pressing, unasked question: What did Carter, Begin and Sadat get right at Camp David that so many other negotiations have gotten wrong?

Lawrence WrightCredit: Kenny Braun

As Wright tells the story, the answer lies not in the cleverness or flexibility of the Israeli and Egyptian representatives, but in the determination of the American negotiators, in particular Carter. “Thirteen Days in September” is an account of the power and limits of American diplomacy. Begin and Sadat were no less recalcitrant, unrealistic and antagonistic than Israeli and Arab leaders before and since.

They were, in fact, almost perfectly ill-matched negotiating partners. Sadat’s embrace of grand, and sometimes vague, gestures was constantly rebuffed by Begin’s pedantic and lawyerly focus on the details. Rather, Carter’s sense of divine mission pushed the negotiations on, despite the parties’ unwillingness and the president’s own declining popularity at home. At the same time, Israel and Egypt’s desperate desire for continued American support left both sides susceptible to the President’s entreaties.

Sense of divine mission

A major theme that runs through “Thirteen Days in September” — and one that is too often missing from other discussions of Israel’s political history — is the central role that religion played in the summit. The scriptural narratives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that shaped negotiators’ perspectives are woven into the story of Camp David’s highs and lows.

Wright also focuses on the personal religious lives of the three leaders, all of whom were, in different ways, driven by faith. Begin, while not strictly observant, was deeply bound to tradition and the covenantal promises of the Hebrew Bible. Sadat had religious roots as well. Raised in a small village in the Nile Delta, he had memorized the Koran at a young age, and even as president continued with prayer, fasting and other outward displays of religiosity that contrasted starkly with the prevailing secular mood in the cosmopolitan Egyptian capital.

From the cover of 'Thirteen Days in September'Credit: Random House

It is, however, Carter’s faith that stands out. From childhood, Carter had been a devout Christian; baptized in the Plains, Georgia, Baptist Church at age 11, he taught Sunday school while in the navy and prayed several times a day while in the White House. Wright describes Carter’s decision to invite the Israeli and Egyptian leaders to Camp David as singularly motivated by this faith. Dismissing the recommendations of his advisers that entangling himself in the Middle East could end his political career, Carter saw himself as fulfilling a divine plan. “I felt that God wanted peace in the Holy Land,” Carter told Wright in an interview, “and I might be useful.”

This sense of divine mission motivated Carter to doggedly pursue an agreement long past the point that pure political calculation would have required. During the nearly two weeks he spent at Camp David, the negotiations fully occupied the president’s agenda; meanwhile, midterm elections were approaching, energy prices were peaking, and revolution was breaking out in the streets of Tehran.

Not only did these other crises demand his attention, but the success of the agreement itself was far from assured. Carter originally thought he could act as host and facilitator, allowing the rustic setting, far from political distractions, to inspire Begin and Sadat to make peace on their own. But by the third day of the summit, when the leaders threatened to walk out for the first time, it had become clear that Carter would have to take a much more active role: cajoling, persuading and strong-arming both sides to remain at the negotiating table and make difficult concessions.

In his epilogue, Wright quotes Begin’s quip that the peace at Camp David was “all in the timing.” Without fleshing out what Begin meant by this observation, Wright disagrees, noting that Israel and Egypt’s incentives for making peace — stabilizing borders, economic opportunities and freeing manpower and resources for other ends — were present at Israel’s founding in 1948 no less than they were at the summit 30 years later.

Be that as it may, in 1978 the United States was in a uniquely powerful negotiating position; both leaders were more than willing to abandon the opportunity to make peace with each other, but they could not risk the loss of American support. Though the talks at Camp David came in the wake of Sadat’s dramatic trip to Jerusalem and almost a year of independent, though tense, negotiations between Israel and Egypt, Wright argues persuasively that it was American intervention that forced the parties to reach an agreement in the end.

Since succeeding Gamal Abdel Nasser as President in 1970, Sadat had been systematically dismantling his predecessor’s model of socialist pan-Arab nationalism. Especially prominent among the elements of what Sadat termed his Corrective Revolution was a move away from Soviet influence and toward the United States. Sadat hoped that his close personal relationship with Carter, forged during an earlier White House meeting, would help improve ties between the two states.

Carter gets angry

The Israelis were looking for similar assurance. By rearming Israeli forces during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the United States had helped Israel turn the tide against the combined attacking armies of Egypt and Syria. Just a few years later, though, there was a fear in the Israeli camp that if Begin walked out on the negotiations, Carter would anoint Egypt America’s principal ally in the region — amounting to a chill in bilateral relations reflecting Begin and Carter’s tense personal relationship.

Carter deftly used this leverage to his advantage. The negotiation’s most intractable issue was the fate of Israel’s settlements in the Sinai Peninsula. Sadat demanded that these settlements, built after the Israeli seizure of the territory in the 1967 Six-Day War, be removed as part of any accord. Begin repeatedly refused to evacuate them.

Wright notes that the Israeli fear that America and Egypt would conclude a separate agreement forced Begin to make concessions in the end. Carter also used the same tactic against the Egyptians. When Sadat, bags packed, was prepared to walk out on the negotiations almost at the very end, Carter, boiling with rage, threatened that such a move would not only mean the end of the relationship between Egypt and the United States, and likely the end of Carter’s own presidency, but also “the end of something that is very precious to me: my friendship with you.”

There is, of course, an additional factor that contributed to the talks’ successful conclusion. As much as the Camp David accords yielded a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, they failed in what Carter, at least, saw as the negotiations’ larger goal: a comprehensive treaty that would solve the Palestinian question and end the Arab-Israeli conflict. As the talks haltingly proceeded, Carter lowered his expectations and envisioned two separate agreements rather than a single grand bargain: Egyptian-Israeli peace now and Israeli-Palestinian peace later.

The one major concession that Carter asked of Begin was a halt on construction of new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip while further negotiations on the future of the Palestinians were under way. This agreement on settlements was to be included in a letter that would serve as the link between the Camp David Accords and the future negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, to be concluded within five years.

In a marathon session late on the last night of the negotiations, Carter thought he had secured agreement on this settlement freeze. Begin, however, remembered differently. The letter he delivered the day after the final peace accords were signed made no mention of a halt on new construction, and Begin immediately began making statements to the press that settlement construction in the West Bank would not only continue but increase.

Wright implies that Begin was not acting in bad faith, and indeed it is hard to imagine the Israeli leader agreeing to end settlement in the West Bank, the biblical heartland known traditionally as Judea and Samaria, in the first place. In any case, the fault lies not just with Begin, but with all three leaders. Begin, Carter and Sadat made peace by punting the truly contentious issues down the road.

Samuel Thrope has written for The Christian Science Monitor, Tablet and other publications, and is the translator of Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s “The Israeli Republic.”

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