Pulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright has just published a thrilling, compulsively readable account of the 1978 Camp David accords titled Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.
The New York Times named the book, published by Knopf, one of the 10 Best Books of 2014.
During that fraught period, the leaders of Egypt, Israel, and the United States hammered out a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that has kept to this day.
Yet Wright is anything but optimistic about the chances for any other aspects of peace breaking out in the Middle East any time soon.
“There’s no archeological or historical evidence,” Wright told me, “to support the Biblical story of the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, their escape across the Red Sea, the forty years they spent wandering in the desert, or even Joshua’s conquest of what is now the land of Israel.
“The problem is that when you use legend as the basis for political decision making, you run into trouble. You can have your stories and treat them as verifiable fact, or you can have peace. But you can’t have both.”
The Camp David accord nearly ran aground over this very issue, Wright writes. Begin’s truculence was rooted in a Biblical reality, while Sadat saw himself as an Arab leader appointed by God to change the face of history.
“It’s really amazing,” he says, “when you consider how naïve Jimmy Carter was at the start of the conference, and how intransigent both Begin and Sadat were. Yet somehow they were able to overcome their core personality issues and come to an agreement. The problem is that in today’s world, you probably couldn’t even get these same guys in a room to talk, let alone to work out a deal.”
The world has changed, Wright notes, with separation among the Jews and Palestinians the order of the day.
“At the time of Camp David,” he says, “Jews would travel into Palestinian Jericho to buy fruit and groceries. A hundred and fifty thousand Arabs would travel each day from Gaza to jobs in Israel. That doesn’t happen anymore. Today, there’s almost no contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. It’s awfully hard to make peace with people you don’t know the slightest thing about.”
Wright, a journalist by trade and a musician to boot, had never intended to make a career of studying the intersection of deeply held religious beliefs and modern society, but that’s certainly how his career has turned out.
“I was pious in my teens,” Wright recalls, “and less so later on. But I always had an interest in religion. My first book was about the Amish. It’s really in the last ten years that religion has occupied so much of my professional focus.”
In addition to his new book about Camp David, Wright has written The Looming Tower, a Pulitzer Prize winning study of the run-up to 9/11, and Going Clear, a highly regarded book about Scientology.
The tragedy of modern times, he suggests, is closed-mindedness to ideas that otherwise might have avoided bloodshed.
“David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, coauthored a book,” Wright recounts, “arguing that the Palestinians were actually also Jews. The position he took was so controversial that the idea was quickly suppressed. But can you imagine how different the world would have been if Ben-Gurion’s ideas had been taken seriously? What if Ben-Gurion was right?”
Wright marvels at the fact that the entire Camp David peace process owed its existence to the mistaken belief on the part of one of Egyptian President Sadat’s advisors.
The man, Hassan el-Tohamy, whom Wright portrays as a cross between a mystic and a court jester, met with Moshe Dayan, Israel’s fabled defense minister, and reported, inaccurately, to Sadat that Israel was ready to make peace and surrender all of the territories it had won in the 1967 Six Day war.
On the strength of that “intelligence,” Sadat made his lightning trip to Israel, flying to Tel Aviv and then speaking at the Knesset, inviting Israel to partner with him for peace.
Wright further marvels at the sincere, if astonishingly naïve, view of President Jimmy Carter, that he could take the leaders of two nations that had been at war seemingly forever, plop them down in an idyllic retreat not far from Washington D.C., and emerge with a comprehensive peace plan, a process he envisioned would take a mere 72 hours.
It took a lot longer than that, but eventually Carter found the steel within his soul to force Begin and Sadat to accept compromises that led to the peace agreement.
The book is replete with unforgettable moments like Menachem Begin reciting the Gettysburg Address on a tension-breaking “field trip” to Gettysburg, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter sitting delightedly on Jimmy’s lap as an agreement neared.
Wright portrays Sadat as an extraordinarily clever statesman with visions of greatness for himself that went back all the way to his poverty-stricken childhood. Carter, who grew up among poor blacks in the small town, mid-century American South, empathized with Sadat, an outsider in Cairo café society. The portraits of these leaders are exquisitely drawn and the book reads like a political thriller.
The real tragedy of the region, as Wright sees it, is that both sides will not relinquish their beliefs that their holy books are inviolate guides to political settlements in the 21st century. Until that ever changes, real peace will be in short supply.
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