By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Lawrence Wright
Narration by: Mark Bramhall, Lawrence Wright
Lawrence Wright seems well qualified to write about the Camp David Accords and the Egypt/Israeli peace agreement of 1978. Wright is an accomplished researcher and writer with firsthand experience of Egypt as an American student and teacher at American University in Cairo in the late 1960s and early 70s. He presently works as a staff writer for “The New Yorker” magazine. He wrote two well-researched books about events leading to 9/11 titled “The Looming Tower”, and another about Scientology titled “Going Clear”.
One of the more striking characterizations in “Thirteen Days in September” is the respect and high regard given Anwar Sadat by the author. In the course of Wright’s research, he notes high praise of Sadat by Henry Kissinger and President Carter. Sadat comes across as a highly intelligent and innovative thinker and actor. That is particularly interesting in view of Sadat’s fawning support of Adolph Hitler during WWII.
Unquestionably, Sadat is an action oriented and innovative thinker. He defies some of his closest advisers to achieve a treaty; i.e. a treaty never before or after seen between an Arab nation and Israel. Though the treaty is ultimately not a peace maker, Sadat’s flexibility in negotiation, and his bravery in signing the treaty, costs his life. Though some land is returned to Egypt, continued Israeli settlements in occupied territories (liberated land in the minds of many Israelis) destroy hope for peace. Sadat is assassinated in 1981 by a squad of Egyptian soldiers led by Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli.
Wright offers profiles of famous leaders in the Middle East. Menachem Begin is the leader of Israel at the time of the treaty negotiation. Begin is a former terrorist leader of the Irgun that murdered British officers, women, and children in order to compel their departure from the Middle East. The most well-known of Irgun’s terrorist attacks is the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946.
The British administrative headquarters for Palestine are in the Hotel. The Irgun believes secret files of Jewish atrocities are kept at the King David Hotel. Ninety deaths and forty-six non-fatal injuries are recorded after the bombing. It is considered by some to be the greatest terrorist attack of the twentieth century. Begin alleges the Irgun notified the British before the bomb is detonated but the British either ignore the warning, or say the warning is never received. In any case, Wright notes that rising terrorist events, and more pressing conflicts in other parts of the world (like India), compel Great Britain to leave Israel.
Surprisingly, despite Begin’s history as a terrorist, he is elected as the sixth prime minster of Israel in 1977. Wright characterizes Begin as a highly intelligent, formal, and intransigent Israeli leader in the Camp David negotiations. Begin is not noted as a religious zealot but as a tough-minded negotiator who believes Israelites are entitled to the “promised land” identified by God in the Old Testament. Wright notes that Begin’s difficult life as a Polish Jew inure him against sympathy for any hardship of the Palestinians.
Wright characterizes Begin’s fellow Israeli negotiators; i.e. particularly Moshe Dayan, and later, Ariel Sharon. They play important parts in the final negotiation. Dayan is Israel’s most accomplished military leader who effectively wins the six-day war and soundly defeats Anwar Sadat’s army. Dayan keeps the peace process going when it looks like it is about to fail. Ariel Sharon is noted by the author as a right-wing military leader and politician that convinces Begin to agree on the last sticking point of the negotiation by saying peace is worth giving land back to Egypt; i.e. a position to which Begin had been adamantly opposed.
One issue that is never included in the Camp David Accords, that is insisted on by Sadat, is the dismantling of Israeli settlements in the Sinai. Sadat backs off that issue as long as a side letter to the agreement would be signed by Begin that would stop future Israeli settlements. Carter has the letter drawn and is told by Begin that it will be signed. However, the record of the letter becomes clouded by a version that indicates there would be a moratorium rather than elimination of future settlements. As is well-known, Israeli settlements remain a focus of enmity between today’s Israelites and Palestinians. The level of enmity is clear when eleven year old Palestinian children offer their lives as martyrs by exploding themselves wherever Israelis congregate.
Wright offers a nuanced picture of President Jimmy Carter. Carter appears to heavily lean toward Anwar Sadat’s more flexible approach to negotiation.
As the future illustrates, Carter empathizes with the Palestinian plight and their fight for a homeland in the Middle East. Thru tough-minded persistence Carter manages to keep Sadat and Begin at Camp David for thirteen days; even when it looks futile after the first three days of negotiation. Carter is aided by Cyrus Vance, the Secretary of State, but it seems Anwar Sadat’s flexibility, and bravery are the preeminent reasons for Carter’s success.
Wright’s reflections on the Camp David Accords travel back and forth in time to define the characters of the negotiators and the troubled history of Israel in the Middle East. The seemingly intractable obstacles to peace remain, but “Thirteen Days in September” offer a meager but persistent hope for solution. President Carter manages to get Menachem Begin to agree to have the Camp David Accords heard and voted on by the Knesset in Jerusalem. The vote is two thirds for the agreement while those aligned with Begin say no. It is possible for peace between Arabs and Israelis but it requires bravery, a will to negotiate for peace, and willingness to compromise. Religions and past atrocities were set aside by Sadat’s initiative and the vote of the Knesset.
What appears to be needed, if Wright has accurately portrayed “Thirteen Days in September” is another Anwar Sadat, or his equal, on one or the other side of the negotiation. One concludes from Wright’s history that the solution for peace in the Middle East must come from both sides of the aggrieved nations. Outsiders, at best, can only be facilitators.