Thoughts on Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

I listened to Thirteen Days as an unabridged audiobook this last week and will share my thoughts about it. I am old enough to remember the Camp David Summit from the news and the excitement that peace in the Middle East would bring. It was reported to be the biggest peace treaty since World War II. I also remember it was very much about religion as it was about nations.

Interestingly religion was a much bigger concern for the Israelis than it was for the Egyptians. Begin used the old testament as part of his justification, going as far as calling occupied areas by their Biblical name. Egyptian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Boutros Boutros-Ghali was (and is) a Christian who was married to a Jewish woman. Osama el-Baz had a Jewish girlfriend at the time and asked if a member of the Israeli team could bring a menorah from Israel for his girlfriend.

Sadat wanted peace. In 1977, he made a speech saying he would go to Israel. Begin then issued an invitation, not expecting Sadat to accept. Sadat did accept and addressed the Israeli Knesset. He was the first Arab leader to visit the state of Israel and in a sense the first Arab leader to accept Israel’s existence. This is where the peace process begins: Egypt, the leader of the Arab world, meeting with the Israeli government. Sadat was not altruistic in his actions. He wanted a legacy of greatness and peace with Israel might be the key to greatness.

Each chapter of the book covers a day of the conference and gives a biography of one of the participants. This was the surprising part of the book for me. I knew Carter’s biography, but Moshe Dayan’s impressed me and perhaps did the most to change the opinion I had of him in a positive way. Begin’s biography was just the opposite. He was a man who had more in common with terrorists than any other member at the conference. His semiautobiographical book The Revolt written about the struggle against the British Mandate has been found in Al Qaeda camps. Begin attacked civilian targets and was the first to use simultaneous attacks as a regular tactic. His policies influenced modern terrorists. Begin, however, claimed not to be a terrorist but the opposite of terrorist, but it’s hard to call someone a freedom fighter when they target civilians. Begin played with words. He was a very intelligent person and bickered about nearly every word in the treaty at Camp David much to the ire of everyone present.

Sadat was willing to bend. Begin was not. Sadat saw the summit as a positive and Begen saw it as a trap. Sadat knew that being willing to compromise, even if no treaty would come forth, would win the goodwill of the United States. Egypt recently shocked the world when it broke away from the Soviet camp. Sadat was looking for better relations with the United States and he would get it, treaty or not. Begin, however, could quickly bring out the anger in Carter, which seemed liked a difficult task considering Carter’s reputation.

An interesting aspect of the summit was the Palestinian question. There was no Palestinian representation. Egypt was overcome with other difficulties during the thirteen days and was not an able representative of the cause. Israel did what it could to avoid the Palestinian issue. If this issue could have been properly addressed at the summit the Middle East would be different today. Since the treaty, there have been no more wars between Israel and Egypt or other nations of the Middle East. The problems have been between the stateless Palestinian groups and Israel. If peace or a responsible solution for the Palestinians could have been found the Middle East would be much different. That may have been too much to ask. Begin did not want to discuss the issue and Sadat was in enough trouble with other Middle East countries as well as with his own people. Mohammed Kamel, Sadat’s Foreign Minister, resigned during Camp David. Egypt was shunned by the Arab League until 1989 and two years later, Sadat was killed by members of his own military.

The Camp David Summit is well known for bringing Israel and Egypt together and negotiating peace between the two countries. It also helped establish Israel as a nation in the eyes of the Middle East. For the leader of the Arab world to meet with and sign a treaty with the enemy of the Arabs, did much to establish the legitimacy of Israel in the region.

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David gives a very detailed look in the Camp David Summit and the major players in the summit. As mentioned above, I listened to the audio version read by Mark Bramhall. The reading was very good and Bramhall used a different voice for Carter, Sadat, and Begin. I did have difficulty distinguishing between Bramhall’s version of Carter’s Southern drawl and Begin’s accented English in the reading. A first class educational experience.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Review

One response to “Thoughts on Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

  1. tgottschling

    On Being with Krista Tippett interviewed Mohammed Fairouz, in which he spoke of themes underlined in your book review re Sadat’s spiritual approach and initiatives for peace preceding the Camp David Summit. I might read the book you’ve reviewed; it sounds interesting.

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