Thirteen days in September

thirteendays In 1978, U.S. president Jimmy Carter brokered a Middle East peace treaty between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. The deal still stands — this is why you don’t hear news about Israel and Egypt fighting over Sinai, a piece of land that had seen three major wars in thirty years before this treaty — and is among the rare instances of successful negotiations towards peace. Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright narrates the story of that historic autumn in Camp David, the thirteen days it took three leaders — Jimmy Carter, Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat — and their teams to agree on the deal.

It’s a gripping narrative structured in chapters outlining the events of each day, bookended by a prologue that sets the context and an epilogue that outlines the consequences. Woven through the chapters are summaries of key events of the region — the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the war that followed, the 1956 Suez crisis, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — and also the biblical underpinnings of Israel’s outlook and actions: the exodus from Egypt, David and Goliath, Samson, etc.

Historical works of this nature, where the consequences of actions described are still playing out, can leave you with a sense of despair. While the Camp David summit solved one issue — between Israel and Egypt — it left unresolved the matter of Palestine. Here’s Wright:

The War of Independence in 1948 expanded the territory that the new Jewish state claimed, including nearly 60 percent of the area designated for the still-born nation of Palestine, the remainder being taken over by Jordan. Arab refugees flooded into neighbouring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilising presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The sacrifice made by Israel at Camp David was one that entailed giving up the Sinai peninsula — a territory they had captured in 1967 during the Six-Day war — and their settlements there. In return, the Israelis received peace on that front. No such sacrifice seems acceptable to Israel in the matter of Palestine — this becomes clear in the beliefs and attitudes of Begin, defined mostly by Israel’s Biblical past and the horrors Jews have suffered throughout history.

One cause for that despair — even in a book that offers hope for diplomacy — is the depiction of the disproportionate influence powerful individuals have in shaping history. This seems like a straightforward lesson throughout history, but reading the details — for instance, the way Moshe Dayan, minister of defence in Israel, chose to take West Bank in 1967 — serves as a bitter reminder that even in a democracy it is not the majority who influence important and far reaching decisions, but the political or military leader. The same disproportionate influence can go the other way too, towards positive decisions with a large impact, but such instances are rare. Starting a war is far easier than forging peace.

Another cause is the influence of religion, which forms the bedrock of this conflict. Begin believes in the founding myth of Israel — a story in the Bible that involves the Israelites (led by Joshua) massacring of thousands of people living in Canaan, between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean, in order to possess the land — as a guide to defining Jewish identity in the modern world.

For many believers, the account of the annihilation of the peoples of Canaan is one of the most troubling stories in the bible. For Begin, however, Joshua was the original incarnation of the Fighting Jew. Joshua’s mission was to carve out a living space for the Israelites, much as the modern Jews sought to do in the Arab world. Over the long horizon of Jewish history, so scarred by the pogroms and death camps of Europe and semi-servitude in the regions of Islam, Joshua is a singular and daunting paragon. Begin certainly wasn’t the only Israeli leader who believed that spilling blood was a necessary ritual for the unification and spiritual restoration of the Jewish people, and that enacting revenge on the Arabs was a way of healing the traumas of the Jewish experience in Europe and elsewhere. Even many secular Israelis, such as Dayan, saw Joshua as the model for the post-Holocaust new Jewish man.

If healing the traumas of one horror involves the creation of another, where does the cycle end?

In the midst of all this despair, the person who brings hope is Anwar Sadat. I was stunned, like many others were when it happened, to read about his decision to visit Jerusalem in 1977. At a time when most Arabs wished to see Israel annihilated, he came to them with an offer of peace. “Israel was in a state of confused delirium because of the visit, the first in Israel’s history by any Arab leader.” writes Wright.

By presenting himself to Israel, Sadat was introducing two cultures that were almost entirely unknown to one another. Few Israelis had ever met an Egyptian, except for the Jews who had emigrated from there, so the shock of having Sadat himself in their midst was compounded by curiosity and wonder. The same was true for the Egyptians watching the event on television. To see Sadat staring into the faces of the enemy — until now, figures of legend — suddenly and unsettlingly humanised the Israelis in the Egyptian mind. Sadat was convinced that 70 percent of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs was psychological; if he could make peace seem real and available, not only to the Israelis but also to the Arabs, most of the work would be done.

Sadat’s unorthodox manoeuvres surprised Kissinger, then US Secretary of State, especially when he threw the Soviets out of Egypt in 1972.

“Why has he done us this favor?” Kissinger asked his aides. “Why didn’t he demand all kinds of concessions first?” To compound the confusion, the Americans got a note from Cairo in September explaining that Egypt was not seeking any special consideration from the U.S. because of its action. While deploring American partiality to Israel, the letter expressed a willingness to reopen the Suez canal, which had been closed since the 1967 war, and set no preconditions for talks with the U.S. “It was all, as I would come to realize, vintage Sadat,” Kissinger later recalled. “His negotiating tactic was never to haggle over detail but to create an atmosphere that made disagreement psychologically difficult… I cannot say that I fully understood Sadat’s insight then,” Kissinger admitted. “Great men are so rare that they take some time getting used to.”

Sadat joined the Camp David summit at the expense of his relationship with other Arab nations. At the summit, Sadat kept the door open by not pushing the Palestinian matter (which the Israelis were not willing to compromise on). This helped Carter reach a deal with the Israelis, but cost Sadat his life. He was assassinated in 1981 by a radicalised Egyptian military officer. (Menachem Begin visited his funeral; three former US presidents were also present.)

In a book about important men who had carved for themselves a place in history, the episode that struck me most was one where the thoughtfulness of an ordinary woman played a significant role.

The camp was nearing its end. Carter had achieved a breakthrough, and the lawyers were putting together the final draft. There was a minor matter of a “side letter” requested by Sadat, a letter that had no legal standing but simply stated the position of each nation on the matter of Jerusalem. The U.S. letter “drew upon previous statements of former US ambassadors to the UN concerning the established American policy that East Jerusalem was occupied territory. Following the six-day war, Israel had unilaterally declared that Jerusalem was its capital — an action that the U.S. govt ‘does not accept or recognize.’” When this side letter was shown to the Israelis, it touched an exposed nerve. Begin was furious, and he threatened to walk out of the conference. Jimmy Carter was enraged too — the letter wasn’t saying anything new, it was simply repeating the U.S. position on the matter; and he couldn’t understand why anyone would throw away the breakthrough deal for a statement in the appendix with no legal relevance.

Not having those side letters wasn’t an option — Sadat wanted them. For Carter, it now seemed the camp had ended in failure. As a final gesture, Carter walked over to Begin’s cabin with some photographs the latter had requested:

Carter’s secretary, Susan Clough, brought him a batch of photographs of the three leaders to sign. Begin had previously asked for these souvenirs for this grandchildren, whom he was constantly talking about. Clough had thoughtfully called Israel to get their names. Carter could hardly stand the idea of seeing Begin again, but for some reason, instead of signing his usual, “Best wishes,” he added “with love,” and inscribed the name of each child. He walked over to Begin’s cabin, intending to drop off the photos, no more. The feelings of anger, frustration, and heartbreak were almost overwhelming.

When Carter appeared, Begin was cool and dismissive. His characteristic bluster was gone. He could scarcely permit himself to speak except in brief formalities.

“Mr. Prime Minister, I brought you the photographs you asked for,” Carter said.

“Thank you, Mr.President.”

Carter handed Begin the photographs and the prime minister cooly thanked him again. Then he noticed that Carter had signed the top photograph “To Ayelet.”

Begin froze. He looked at the next one. “To Osnat.” His lip trembled and tears suddenly sprang into his eyes. One by one, he said their names aloud, weeping openly. “Orit.” “Meirav.” “Michal.” There were eight of them altogether.

Carter also broke down. “I wanted to be able to say, ‘This is when your grandfather and I brought peace to the Middle East,’” he said. The scale of their failure had never been more evident.

Begin asked the other Israelis to leave them alone, and then he drew Carter into the cabin, closing the door behind them.

Behind closed doors Begin softens his tone but does not give in immediately. He talks about the importance of Jerusalem, and why there are no two opinions on this matter. Carter hands him a slightly revised version of the side letter — one that retains the facts but omits quoting the strong statements from those U.S. ambassadors — and returns to his cabin, with the intention of canceling the media event planned later.

Not long after, Begin calls Carter to tell him that he has accepted the side letter.

Women have barely a role to play in these thirteen days. But we learn that it was Rosalynn Carter — the First Lady — who had mooted the idea of such a summit to her husband. So it begins with a woman. And near the end we have Susan Clough, Jimmy Carter’s secretary, whose feminine touch breaks the barrier between two hardened and strong-willed men.

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