Lawrence Wright is best known for "The Looming Tower," his 2006 Pulitzer-winning history of Al Qaeda. His latest book, Thirteen Days in September, is somewhat less cinematic in its subject: a gathering of old and middle-aged men, reluctantly and awkwardly convened for two weeks in the Maryland woods in 1978. One can almost smell the Geritol and pine resin in the air. But that gathering was, in a way, more momentous than any Bin Laden meeting, and perhaps more historically important than the September 11 attacks themselves. The Camp David Accords, at which Jimmy Carter coaxed Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to agree to the framework of peace, stands out as the first unstiffening of the two countries’ positions toward each other, and one of the only bits of good news to come out of the Middle East then or since.
Israel and its neighbors had been dealing each other near-mortal wounds for over a decade when their leaders arrived at Camp David, the presidential retreat named for the father and grandson of Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1967, Israel preemptively destroyed the entire Egyptian air force and humiliated the rest of the Egyptian military after determining, almost certainly correctly, that a multi-front Arab war of annihilation was in the works. (The best book about that conflict remains Michael Oren’s "Six Days of War.") In 1973, Egypt punished Israel for its cockiness by mounting an effective surprise assault and recapturing, briefly, the Sinai Peninsula – only to have the Israelis claw it back and seriously contemplate an attack on Cairo. Israel finished the war sufficiently chastened by its lack of preparation to force the resignation of Prime Minister Golda Meir, and eventually to elect a hawkish semi-recovered terrorist, Menachem Begin, as the first Likud prime minister.
Those wars probably killed more people on both sides than all the Israeli wars since. It’s therefore worth keeping in mind that the atmosphere of the talks described in Wright’s book was at least as tense as the atmosphere today, in which earnest envoys like Secretary of State John Kerry and former senator George Mitchell are routinely mocked for their optimism and naïveté. And yet the accords produced a durable – if cryogenically cold – peace. (With the exception of Israelis tanning themselves on beaches in the Sinai, one almost never sees the countries’ citizens on each other’s land. And in Egypt, there are few insults graver than to call someone an Israeli agent. One comparably serious offense, curiously, is to call someone’s mother a shoe.) Still, the vast majority of Israelis and Egyptians alive now have known only peace, of a sort, with each other.
Wright takes the talks day-by-day and pads the narrative of negotiation with miniature biographies of the participants and their deputies, along with short histories of the conflicts that brought them all to this inauspicious point. Begin comes across as intransigent but brilliant, Sadat as canny and strategically inscrutable, even to his own aides. Wright portrays the aides themselves, both Egyptian and Israeli, in particularly memorable fashion. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then an Egyptian diplomat and later the United Nations secretary-general, is a cosmopolitan aristocrat; his colleague Hassan el-Tohamy creeps out many of those present by making unpredictable and crazy claims, such as being able to stop his heart indefinitely, at will, and to tame lions with his mind. Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan, whose eye patch added to his aura – heroic for Israelis and fearsome to their enemies – emerges as a man of nuance, perhaps the most liberal and pro-Palestinian of the Israeli statesmen present. He was also ill at the summit, with cancer already gestating and his remaining vision growing so dim that he feared bumping into Camp David’s pines and felt himself “threatened by the trees.”
But the most memorable character is Carter himself, who, along with other still-living participants, submitted to interviews by Wright. (The book had its origin in a suggestion by Gerald M. Rafshoon, Carter’s communications director, that Wright author a play about Camp David. It premiered this year.) Carter’s reputation as a peanut-farming rube, never fully shaken, has some factual basis. When Carter first visited Israel, Wright notes, the then-governor of Georgia – and longtime Sunday school teacher – asked Prime Minister Golda Meir whether she worried whether God might frown on her country’s departures from biblical example. That secular Jew was having none of his Christian moralism, and she “laughed in his face” for his insolence.
By 1977, though, Carter seems to have recalibrated accordingly, and in Wright’s telling he was the ingredient without which the peace could never have been cooked up. The Carter of Camp David is a man of passion, anger, and pragmatism, willing to cajole, flatter, and threaten his way to a solution. On the occasions when the Egyptians and Israelis prepared to call off further discussion – going so far as pack their bags and request helicopters to the airport – he at times begs them to stay. His own presidency (which, of course, turned out to be doomed anyway) would certainly have been judged a catastrophe if the summit turned out to be a long and wasteful bull session. But Carter had a furious streak. A Navy man, he promised Sadat and Begin that if his ship was going to sink he would make sure the one who torpedoed it by walking out would drown with him. He swears, in effect, that he will make their departure look unconscionable and stupid, not only to their own people but to the world.
It worked, although up to the very last days the conference seemed hopeless. Begin categorically refused to countenance closing settlements in the Sinai, and Sadat refused to accept anything but total withdrawal. That they emerged from the woods with a lasting accord, given the nature of the participants, can be described only as a miracle of diplomacy, still somewhat baffling almost forty years later for having happened at all. Miracles, even of the purely secular kind, inherently resist explanation. But as explanations go, Wright’s is among the best and most readable we are likely to get.
Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic.