THIS SUMMER, as Israel and Hamas fought their third war in as many years, Israeli delegates and their Palestinian counterparts refused to meet each other in person while they negotiated a ceasefire. They sat in separate rooms in Cairo, Egypt, while Egyptian officials (likely intelligence agents), in a high-stakes game of telephone, shuttled back and forth between the two parties, relaying information. In the end, Israel and Hamas reached a settlement: peace-for-peace. At least for now.
Diplomacy is hard work. And diplomacy between Israel and its Arab neighbors may be the hardest there is. Resentment runs deep among Arabs; Israel is famous for its obstinacy; each side is awash in fear and mistrust of the other. The Egyptians were able to mediate between Hamas and Israel to end this summer’s 50-day-long war in large part because Cairo remains one of only two Arab capitals with a peace treaty with Israel. That treaty was negotiated at the initiation of President Jimmy Carter over the course of 13 painstaking, frustrating, and very nearly fruitless days in September 1978 at the presidential retreat in Maryland hills known as Camp David.
The laborious process of writing the Camp David Accords, as the framework for the Egypt–Israel peace treaty is known, is the subject of the latest book by The New Yorker staff writer and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Lawrence Wright. Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David tells the inside story of what happened when Carter took a massive leap of faith and secluded Egyptian and Israeli delegations in the woods an hour north of the White House, making the two countries, who had fought four wars over the previous 30 years, agree on an outline for peace. A strict chronology governs the narrative, each chapter another day of the negotiations. While the delegates have compared Camp David to an “enclosed, claustrophobic” submarine with “Captain Jimmy Carter at the periscope,” Wright’s narrative never feels stifling. Capturing the great drama, the always-present potential for tragedy behind the details of the treaty talks, Wright again reveals himself as a master storyteller.
The dramatis personae of Thirteen Days in September are human, all too human. There’s the earnest Carter, who served on the school board in Sumter County, Georgia, and sees his role, initially at least, as a kind of “camp counselor” mediating dialogue between inherently good-natured interlocutors. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is mercurial; he entertained fantasies about changing Egyptian history from the time he was a preteen in a Nile Delta farming town, and rarely leaves his Camp David cabin where he broods, barely speaking to the other members of his delegation. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is simultaneously severe and emotional. He refuses to wear anything but a suit and tie even at the mountain retreat; he faints at the sight of blood during a circumcision but celebrates Deir Yassin, Israel’s most notorious massacre of Palestinians in 1948.
And there are other characters, too. First Lady Rosalynn Carter counsels her husband bedside to keep his resolve; the stone-faced, one-eyed Israeli military hero turned foreign minister, Moshe Dayan, brings a general’s strategic eye, rather than an ideologue’s, to the talks; Mohamed Kamel, Sadat’s longtime comrade and doubting foreign minister holds fast to his Arab nationalist background and refuses to sell out the Palestinians; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor and resident “ideas man,” initiates schemes to move the stalled talks forward. Wright paints vivid and compelling portraits of each, weaving their biographies through the book as they appear in the story.
It’s not a coincidence that Thirteen Days in September began as a play called Camp David that was put on in Washington, DC, last year: these characters make for good theater and the drama doesn’t disappoint on the page. Early in the negotiations, Sadat comes to Carter and reveals that despite the hard line he is taking with Begin he has another list of talking points that he hasn’t even shared with his own delegation — concessions that might actually make a treaty possible. That secret document, sequestered in Sadat’s pocket, hovers like a deus ex machina as the fierce and frustrating talks unfold. Brzezinski, a Catholic Pole and a grand strategist, playing chess against Begin, a Polish Jew and former terrorist, reveals himself to be the real chess master — he lets Begin win.
For the nearly two weeks that the Israelis, Egyptians, and Americans were secluded at Camp David much of their time was occupied by long, arduous discussions, and Thirteen Days in September captures the maddening, repetitive nature of this kind of diplomacy. On the afternoon of the sixth day, Carter and his top advisors meet with their Israeli counterparts. The Americans take out a 17-page plan for peace, not just between Israel and Egypt, but also Israel and the Palestinians. Begin balks. The conversation lasts hours until Carter, normally cool, starts to lose his temper as the Israeli prime minister repeats rejections ad nauseam of anything that might force the Israelis to withdraw from the West Bank or Gaza. “We will not accept that,” Begin repeats again and again. By the end of the scene the reader is ready to, as Carter does sometime after three in the morning, throw down her pencil and scream, “You will have to accept it!”
As the summit drags into its 11th day, Sadat gives up hope. Begin has refused unconditionally to remove Israeli settlements from the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian territory occupied by Israel. If there was a single concession Sadat would need to take back to Cairo it was the return of Sinai to Egyptian control. He decides to go home. As the Egyptian president sits on the porch of his cabin, luggage beside him, Carter approaches. “I understand you’re leaving,” the United States president says. Sadat’s sudden departure would mean the failure of the talks, and, he tells Sadat, it would severely damage United States–Egyptian relations. “And last but not least, it will mean the end of something that is very precious to me: my friendship with you. Why are you doing it?” the American president asks. He agrees that if Sadat stays, the Americans will back the Egyptian position on Israeli settlements in Sinai.
Sadat changes his mind about leaving — and eventually Begin changes his, too, on returning the peninsula to Egypt. When, at the end, Begin and Sadat, having finally agreed to terms for peace, sit in the East Room of the White House and sign what Begin calls “the greatest document in Jewish history,” the scene almost provides satisfyingly cathartic resolution. Happily ever after — or as happy as one could ever hope in such circumstances.
The narrative entertains and, without a doubt, helps turn what could be dry diplomatic history into something that reads like a novel. But it may also obfuscate. As the reader gets to know these leaders, she may start to think that their biographies offer the crucial explanations for how they practiced diplomacy. Two decades before Carter convened the peace party in the Maryland woods, he took an unpopular stand in the Jim Crow South: as a member of the school board in Plains, Georgia, the future president backed a school consolidation plan that many of his neighbors feared was a prelude to desegregation. Carter lost his school board fight in the end and suffered abuse for it at the hands of his racist neighbors. “As would be true at other times in his life, failure was a spur to Carter’s ambition,” Wright writes, as if to draw a direct line between the school board fight and the Camp David summit. But Carter’s personal experience was not the only, or the most significant driving force.
It, Begin’s personal stubbornness, and Sadat’s unpredictability are, no doubt, critical to understanding the history of the accords. But so, too, are factors from global economics to domestic politics. While Jimmy and Menachem and Anwar in the woods make for great and compelling reading, Wright only hints at these external issues. In this necessarily limited approach, Israeli politics barely get a mention. The role of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States is similarly glossed over. The changing landscape of the Cold War in the Middle East, which many believe played a greater role in paving the way for the treaty than any other factor (Egypt had realigned from the Soviets’ orbit to America’s just a few years before) receives only two pages of treatment. Wright, like every historian, makes choices about which sides of the story can be slimmed down to fit his narrative. The execution in Thirteen Days in September is stylistically expert, but the stylized version leaves unexamined crucial questions about the world outside of Camp David.
And there’s a crucial area where Wright provides too much context. He reaches back to the Torah, the Bible, and the Qur’an when discussing Israel and the Arabs. This is an all-too-common trope, one all the more attractive at Camp David, where the three characters at the heart of the story seem to beg for this treatment. Carter was a famously devout Christian and Sadat was the most religious of Egypt’s post-independence (but pre-2011) presidents. Begin may have been a secular Jew, but Dayan was obsessed with using Biblical archeology to prove Jewish claims on the land; one of Sadat’s advisors was a Sufi mystic who dreamed of riding into Jerusalem on a white steed. The delegates at Camp David in 1978 certainly kept the holy books in their minds, and when it comes to some issues on the table at the conference, such as the status of Jerusalem, religious history is pertinent. Nevertheless, while interreligious tension may be a convenient narrative device, it’s also a dangerous trap for writers on the Arab–Israeli conflict. It offers reasons for both comfort and resignation, for it treats Arab–Jewish relations as immutable and ancient, thereby distracting from the more recent history or, to use a favorite Israeli phrase, the “facts on the ground.” Wright wisely doesn’t allow Biblical themes to become central to his analysis, but he can’t stop himself from leaning on Moses and Muhammad. In doing so he betrays his better instincts as an historian.
Still, Thirteen Days in September feels eerily timeless, and the present resonates with the history of the Camp David summit. Comparing President Obama to Carter is a favorite trope of the right-wing media, and one that makes sense given Wright’s description of Carter as “by nature cool and reticent.” Egypt’s newest dictator, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, reportedly dreams about Sadat and shares in the former president’s megalomaniacal fantasies. The greatest continuity is on Israeli side, though. Reviewing the history from 36 years ago shows how little has changed in the Israeli position or the Israeli outlook. Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is Begin’s ideological heir, a member of the same right-wing Likud Party. Both Begin and Netanyahu refuse to equivocate about their desires to consume land and expand settlements; both are shockingly willing to upbraid an American president.
Carter grew frustrated with the Israeli prime minister at Camp David, but in the end, Begin got most of what he asked for. The result was an agreement that is far from perfect — and far from completing Carter’s vision when he called for the summit. Egypt signed a separate peace that returned the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo’s control after more than a decade of Israeli occupation. The Camp David Accords set up a framework for moving toward autonomy for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, a promise that remains undelivered. Carter and Sadat hoped that the result of their 13 days in seclusion would be a lasting peace for the Middle East’s totemic conflict.
They were wrong. Thirty-six years later this transformative vision is unfulfilled. The Palestinians are still displaced and occupied. Their population is four times larger than in 1978. This past July and August they fought another war with the heirs of Begin’s legacy. The latest Gaza war came on the heels of another frenzied-but-failed attempt by a United States diplomat to make peace in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry spent nearly a year shuttling between Ramallah and Jerusalem (he made at least a dozen trips to the region) trying to broker a framework for a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians — to no avail. The Palestinians are themselves divided, while Israel is more intransigent as ever. When Begin and his Likud Party came to power in 1977, ending the left-leaning Labor Party’s hegemony, his hardline views on Jewish nationalism and the Palestinians frightened many in the Israeli establishment. But today Begin’s positions haven’t just entered the mainstream, they have become moderate relative to others in Israeli politics. Netanyahu, the inheritor of Begin’s legacy, now finds himself under pressure from his right flank on crucial issues like settlements in the West Bank.
If Israel is ever to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, it will require accords more detailed, and more contentious, than those negotiated at Camp David in 1978. Whether the solution is one state or two on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the process of working out the details will take longer than 13 days. And this is why — in addition to just Wright’s expert storytelling — Thirteen Days in September makes for such good reading right now. Most often, diplomacy seems little more than a Sisyphean labor, but every once in a while the boulder, once at the peak, does not again roll back down.
Max Strasser is an associate editor at Foreign Policy magazine.