August 17, 2019

Carter, Begin and Sadat — Nostalgia for hope of peace

Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is attracted to moments of high drama and historical significance. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his account of Osama Bin Laden and the events of Sept. 11 in “The Looming Tower,” for example, and he penetrated the inner workings of the Church of Scientology in “Going Clear.”

Now Wright looks back on an episode that today might seem more nostalgic than consequential — the negotiations conducted by Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin that produced the tantalizing prospect of peace in the Middle East in 1978. In “Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” (Knopf), Wright recreates the day-by-day, hour-by-hour ordeal by which these three men “forge a partial and incomplete peace,” as Wright puts it, “an achievement that nonetheless stands as one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the twentieth century and one that has yet to be repeated.”

The story Wright has chosen to tell has the classic unities of time, place and action. Indeed, the fact that the Camp David negotiations bring to mind a scene of three men in a room inspired Wright to write a play, “Camp David,” which dramatizes the same events that he explores in meticulous detail in his new book. In real life, as he reveals in the book, the three contentious and irritable leaders were so often at odds with one another that they rarely met face-to-face.

Wright’s sources include both Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, and he allows us to understand what the president sees — and what he fails to see — when he beholds Israel. While governor of Georgia, Carter in 1973 toured Israel with his wife, in a Mercedes station wagon provided by Golda Meier. “Rosalynn wept at the commercialization of the holy sites, but Jimmy told her it was just like that when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple,” Wright writes. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the West Bank, where they washed themselves in the Jordan River in commemoration of the baptism of Jesus: “To walk the streets where Jesus walked, to stand in the hallowed shrines, and to wade into the Jordan filled Carter with awe and a dawning sense of purpose.”

Carter was also alert to an issue that had not yet fully emerged into the light of world public opinion. “Carter estimated that there were about 1,500 Jewish settlers on the West Bank and in Gaza then, but he could already see that they posed a formidable threat to peace.” He understood the political calculus of peacemaking in the Middle East, but he was driven by a higher calling: “He had come to believe that God wanted him to bring peace, and that somehow he would find a way to do so,” Wright explains.

But Wright is less concerned with Carter’s sense of divine calling than with the convergence of politics and personalities that ultimately produced a lasting peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Sadat, for example, was described by the CIA as having a “Barbara Walters Syndrome,” which meant that he hungered for public attention, and a “Nobel Prize Complex,” which meant that he sought a place in history. Yet he was also an unlikely candidate to become a world-renowned historical figure; he was the grandson of an African man who had been brought to Egypt as a slave, and he lionized Adolf Hitler: “I admire you from the bottom of my heart,” he wrote in a Cairo magazine.

Begin, too, was an unlikely peacemaker. When he was the head of the Irgun, he advocated the historical necessity of “the Fighting Jew” and vowed eternal enmity against Jewry’s adversaries: “If you love your people, you cannot but hate the enemies that compass their destruction.” As a longtime member of the minority in the Knesset, “obstruction, not leadership, was his nature,” Wright writes. Yet the author reveals that Begin saw a formal peace treaty between Israel and its most significant Arab adversary as an opportunity to achieve greatness: “Mama, we’ll go down in the history books!”

Wright fleshes out the characters in his book in surprising ways. Begin “never actually fired a gun in his life, despite serving in the Polish army and leading a terrorist movement,” Wright tells us, and the former underground fighter was so squeamish about the sight of blood that “at a circumcision he would turn his face away at the crucial moment.”   

Indeed, Wright enriches his narrative with backstory, colorful asides and illuminating anecdotes that flesh out the long and tragic history of conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. But the focus of his account is the 13 days of negotiation that unfolded at Camp David, which Begin described as “a concentration camp de luxe.” Ezer Weizman, a member of the Israeli delegation, would occasionally ride his bike to the Egyptian quarters for back-channel talks with Sadat. Begin and Zbigniew Brzezinski played a game of chess, “two Polish expatriates facing one another, each with a reputation for ruthless strategic brilliance,” even though Begin privately dismissed him as an “ocher Israel, a hater of Israel.” And when Carter organized an outing to Gettysburg, he was careful to sit between Begin and Sadat and struggled to make small talk: “Carter knew that each of them had spent time in prison, so he broke the tension by asking Sadat if he had read much while in confinement.” 

What emerges from the elaborate diplomatic chess game they conducted at Camp David, however, is the purposely ambiguous approach that bifurcated the issue that mattered most to Sadat and the least to Begin — restoration of Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai — from the larger question of a “grand bargain” to achieve peace in the Middle East and, not incidentally, a solution to the problems of Jerusalem, the settlements and Palestinian statehood.  

“Ambiguity played a double role at Camp David,” Wright concludes. “Careful language was the key to making peace between Egypt and Israel, but vague phrases about negotiations with the Palestinians opened up escape clauses that Begin exploited.”

Today, some 30 years later, we can plainly see that “the greatest document in Jewish history,” as Begin called the Camp David Accords, was an imperfect exercise in diplomacy. The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt remains in place, but Sadat paid with his life for signing it, and today’s unsettled state politics within Egypt puts it at grave risk. The “grand bargain” has gone nowhere, and the explicitly messianic aspirations that Carter, Sadat and Begin shared at Camp David have evaporated. By the last page of Wright’s enlightening and compelling book, the reader is left with the realization that we live today amid the smoking ruins of the Camp David Accords. 

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.