Review: Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, center, leans on the barrel of a cannon as he talks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, left, and President Carter during a tour of the Gettysburg Batterfield
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, center, leans on the barrel of a cannon as he talks with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, left, and President Carter during a tour of the Gettysburg Batterfield / AP

Examining thirteen days at Camp David in early September 1978, in his latest book Lawrence Wright explains how peace triumphed over the threat of further war. In rich narrative detail—though unfortunately with all-too-conventional analysis—Wright profiles the three men who forged a lasting agreement between Israel and Egypt: Sadat, Begin, and Carter.

In Anwar Sadat, Wright presents a man of great internal contradictions. Forged by his hatred for British colonialism in Egypt and driven by a sense of destiny, Sadat was no simple peacemaker. From his early years spent in violent uprisings and conspiracy with Nazi spies, to his failed 1973 invasion of Israel, peace was a late endeavor for the Egyptian leader. Wright describes an eccentric and often capricious personality: Sadat’s personal habits included lying daily on the floor of his bedroom "with a scarf over his eyes" and a passion for American westerns.

In Menachem Begin, Wright portrays a hardened spirit forged by great suffering during his early years. Noting Begin’s imprisonment by the Soviets and his struggles during the Holocaust (in which both of his parents were murdered), Wright describes the Israeli Prime Minister’s resoluteness. As prime minister, Begin’s psychological wounds came to be seen by Israelis as "ennobling, not crippling; his ferocity and intransigence appeared to be appropriate responses to the dangers Israelis faced." As with Sadat, Wright illuminates Begin’s early political history: his leadership of the Irgun group, which used political violence to forge his nation.

Although Wright spends time on Jimmy Carter’s character, his early assessments of Sadat and Begin are far more useful. After all, they emphasize the challenges that Carter faced: Managing Sadat’s unpredictability, and moving Begin, despite his apparently unyielding personality. Indeed, Wright’s study of Carter is often a little incongruous with the great difficulties the summit often suffered. Throughout the book, Carter is presented as an almost saint like figure.

Describing the minutiae of Camp David life—the morning walks, uneven emotions and many alternating policy proposals—Wright sometimes gets lost in the details.

Though Wright underplays the issue, it is clear that Carter greatly misjudged the early days of the summit. Believing he could persuade Begin and Sadat to make concessions that were, in his mind, eminently reasonable, Carter failed to understand his fellow leaders’ points of view. He struggled to accept that for Begin, relinquishing the Sinai settlements would eliminate a security buffer against future Egyptian attack and invite fury from the Israeli right. More precisely, Carter underestimated the psychological legacy of the Holocaust and the Yom Kippur war in shaping Begin’s hesitancy to trust Sadat’s proposals.

Regarding Sadat, Carter is also shown to neglect the emotions of Arab populism that were so central to Sadat’s credibility as a leader. To make concessions to Israel, Sadat had to have tangible and absolute concessions of his own. Instead of addressing these and Begin’s political needs, Carter expended great energy cajoling both Begin and Sadat towards compromises. We see how on numerous occasions, crumbling three-way communication brought the summit to the precipice of collapse.

Too often in the book, Wright uses Begin as a recalcitrant stickman for Carter’s exaggerated statesmanship. Downplaying Begin’s inquiries toward peace before the summit (against his base in the Likud party that was deeply opposed to settlement concessions), and the prime minister’s extraordinary patience with Sadat’s theatrics at the summit, Wright’s favoritism towards Carter and Sadat is clear, to his book’s great detriment. Moreover, Wright takes unnecessary parting shots at Begin’s later decline.

Wright does offer a revealing appraisal of the traveling delegations that accompanied each leader to Camp David. On the Israeli side, we see an eclectic group of generals, diplomats, and lawyers. We see how, as the summit advanced, Begin was pressured by his own officials to make greater concessions. Conversely, on the Egyptian side, we see a constant struggle between Sadat and his officials, who were reluctant to trust Israel. Wright notes how the Egyptian foreign minister "envisioned Israel as a beast waiting to devour the confused and weakened Arabs, plundering their wealth and massacring anyone standing in its way."

Wright’s study of these personalities is interesting and sometimes amusing. This is especially true regarding Sadat adviser Hassan el-Tohamy, a man who believed he could stop his own heart at will, tame lions, speak to genies and dead saints, and "leave his body and travel outside of the physical universe." Tohamy embodies the summit’s contradictions: a situation where the delegates strove towards a noble peace, while simultaneously allowing their own human insecurities and personal emotions to cause great friction.

Finally accepting a deal built upon careful wordplay and a few fundamental compromises, Sadat got the Sinai, and Begin received a durable peace. At the signing ceremony, Begin remarked that the deal was "the greatest document in Jewish history".

Even then, the storm clouds of extremism were gathering. As Wright notes, many of Sadat’s delegation refused to attend, fearing their presence would make them terrorist targets—justifiably, considering that such an end came soon for Sadat himself.

How did peace happen? Wright’s unambiguous conclusion is that President Carter’s leadership was the key: "Carter made it clear to both men that if either of them deserted the process they would have a problem with the United States—a problem neither man could afford. By taking an aggressive stance as a full partner to the negotiations, Carter allowed each side to make concessions to the U.S. that they couldn’t make to each other."

This is true, but only to a degree. Carter worked hard for the deal—but ultimately, it was the willingness of both Mr. Begin and Mr. Sadat to take extraordinary risks that achieved the peace that lasts until this day.