Book Review: Camp David revisited

A biased and clichéd account of the momentous 1978 meeting between Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Jimmy Carter.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (photo credit: US LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/WIKIMEDIA)
Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin
Rosalynn Carter sat with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat on the patio after a dinner party.
It was halfway through the 13-day Camp David meeting and things were on the rocks. “I’ve given so much and ‘that man’ acts as though I have done nothing... I have given up all the past to start anew but ‘that man’ will not let go of the past,” said the Egyptian to president Carter’s wife. “That man” was Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister. In retrospect it may seem that while Israel has moved on from its period of war with Egypt; the Egyptian people still express a deep antipathy toward Israel.
Sadat had given up the past, perhaps too nonchalantly.
Why another book on Camp David? It turns out few books have looked specifically at this topic, and narrowing it down to the 13 days of meetings at Camp David means it fills a welcome niche. The Israeli-Arab conflict seems to be an infinite well from which everyone drinks. Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, seems to be a sort of jack-of-all trades writer who decided that writing about peace in the Middle East would be a good gig. The author, who is also a playwright, came to the subject by accident, when asked to write a play about it. Instead he produced this monograph, Thirteen Days in September. He claims that the lesson of the Egypt-Israel treaty is the “failure of war to impose a lasting and just peace... peace demands... courage and sacrifice.”
He calls the summit a success and the peace a durable one.
The problem with this book is clear from the start. The main characters, Sadat and Begin, are reduced to near caricatures, while president Jimmy Carter is humanized.
Wright claims that “many Israelis considered [Begin] a crank, a fascist or just an embarrassing reminder of the terrorist underground.” That’s like writing a book on George W. Bush and claiming many Americans thought he was a crank; a statement that may be true but that obscures how he became president and who he was.
Similarly, in writing about Sadat the author seems to have borrowed from some other introductory text. He talks about how “in Islam, a man is permitted four wives” after having mentioned that Sadat’s father had six. The racial politics of Egypt, in which Sadat, as half-African, was considered of low caste, are convoluted.
One man is described as being the “son of a dark mother and a father of mixed blood.”
Mixed blood or mixed race? Although Begin is depicted as a terrorist, Sadat’s love letters to Hitler are glossed over. “I admire you from the bottom of my heart,” Sadat had written in the mid-1950s, “in reality you are the victor [over] Churchill and his allies, the sons of Satan.”
This book plays the “Sadat-good” and “Begin-bad” cliché to the hilt. Begin, the terrorist, is the blocker of peace negotiations, greedily wanting to hold on to the territories occupied in 1967. Sadat, the freedom fighter, is the revolutionary, as Time Magazine called him in 1977. “[I]t was as if a messenger from Allah had descended to the promised land.”
Wright claims that “obstructionism, not leadership was his [Begin’s] nature.”
“Rather than becoming more accommodating and flexible in order to gain political consensus, Begin stayed rooted in his ideology.” Wright also notes that Begin came up with an autonomy plan for Palestinians under which they could choose Israeli or Jordanian citizenship. Was that flexible or ideology? The three sides came to Camp David with different outlooks. Jimmy Carter had “decided to risk everything” on this gamble for Middle East peace. Sadat brought along an astrologer and Sufi mystic and an array of advisers who thought peace would never work. Begin brought along foreign minister Moshe Dayan and defense minister Ezer Weizmann, “prima donnas” who were at each other’s throats.
Obviously what happened in 13 days, if broken down in 300 pages, would be tedious and boring. So this book spends much of itself going back over the 1967 war, the 1956 war, the history of Begin’s journey from Poland to British-run Palestine; Sadat’s time in prison, and Carter’s experience picking peanuts and running for office. This jumping back and forth works well, but for those knowledgeable about Israel, one is left with a colorful account that is neither original nor insightful.
When looking at the personal relationships formed at Camp David, it becomes clear just how close the Carters were to Sadat. Some of this was due to the orientalist romance of having a “dark skinned” Arab in their midst, while Begin was a “troublesome” Jew.
Anti-Semitism likely played a role; in the beginning the author details how Carter was briefed by his campaign manager Hamilton Jordan on how “more than 60 percent of the large donors to the Democratic Party were Jewish” and how AIPAC “controlled a reliable majority of votes in the US Senate.” He filled him with stories of the “Jewish lobby” and its nefarious tentacles. Wright doesn’t see this as anti-Semitism, but it is. Sadat played Carter well, talking to him as if they were allies against Israel. “[W]e are wasting our time with this man,” he told the president.
It is hard to judge in the end, given the author’s obvious antipathy toward Begin and his reliance on those who hated Begin to define the Likudnik, how much of this narrative is true. Maybe in the end it is like the play he originally thought to produce. A play needs a bad character, a good one and a third-act denouement.
So, this book has all that, even if it isn’t grounded too well in history.