Sunday, November 9, 2014

Thirteen Days in September

Thirteen Days in September is a new book about the Camp David talks in 1978 which, after a trying thirteen days, yielded the peace between Egypt and Israel which has essentially held up for close to forty years.

The book had received rave reviews. I am interested in the Middle East so I thought this would be a good read.  I am glad I read it, but I did not think the writing was as good as the reviewers suggested. When I am in a good book I take it everywhere and read whenever I have a spare moment. With this book I took it everywhere but found reasons not to read it.

You may remember that in the Fall of 1977, Anwar Sadat surprised the world by announcing that he was willing to go to Israel to make peace.   Israel welcomed Sadat and his entourage with open arms and this was the vestibule to the peace that exists now.  However, for a year after Sadat's courageous visit, not much had taken place to guarantee peace.  President Jimmy Carter decided to invite the leaders to his retreat in Camp David in September 1978 and attempt to hammer out an accord. The book is the description of these days. In addition to the day by day account, the book explains the history of the Middle East conflict.

I can't recommend the book with any real enthusiasm. I did not find it that well written and while many events in the thirteen days were recounted, there seemed to be gaps.  Maybe I feel this way because I could not maintain attention always, but that says something in and of itself since I am inherently interested in this subject.

Some takeaways for me.

(1) While I always thought of Sadat as courageous, the book makes this case convincingly.  Not a nuts and bolts guy--he was a big picture leader--and he saw the big picture from a perspective that was, from my perspective, a humanitarian one.

(2) The peace accord does not happen without the industry, perseverance, and commitment of President Carter.  There were so many times that a less committed leader would have said, "the hell with it. Let these stubborn guys go on killing themselves."  Carter did not and he did not because he felt compelled to try and bring peace to the region.  He deserved far more credit than he received for his work at Camp David.

(3) Intuitively I know that emotion runs the show and that logic typically takes a back seat.  This would be apparent to any reader of the book.  Begin was absolutely intransigent on an issue that would have ended the talks.  Carter was angry and had given up. But Carter had promised to sign some pictures for Begin's grandchildren. He did, wrote the names of each of the grandchildren on the photos. Carter brought the photos to Begin and told Begin that he, Carter, thought that Begin was being stubborn and had aborted the peace process.  Carter left Begin's cabin and when he returned to his own cabin Begin was on the phone. He had been moved by the photos, wanted peace for his grandchildren and signed a document.

(4) Begin does not come out so extra in this book.  Carter thought he had an agreement on an issue related to the Palestinians. Begin claimed that he had not agreed to that component of the treaty.  The author suggests that a different sort of Israeli leader would have accepted this, been able to trade land for peace, and the kind of peace Egypt and Israel have enjoyed might have been characteristic of the entire region.  Of course it is important to remember that Begin's entire family was butchered by the Nazis during World War II.  Still, even among the Israelis, there are some who feel that Begin was not the kind of leader who could take advantage of this opportunity.

(5) I wonder if the author, Lawrence Wright, has taken some heat for the book.  He has made me wonder if the American Israeli narrative regarding the Middle East should be reconsidered.  I had always thought of the Israelis as the victims in 48, 56, 67, and 73.  I am aware that Israel had its back against the wall from day one when in 1948, immediately after Independence Day, they were attacked.  But some Israeli actions described in Wright's book in the years and wars that followed are not wholly defensive or defensible.  And, in a number of cases--the 56 war for example--at variance with the narrative I've heard and read throughout my lifetime.

(6) Peace with Egypt might not have occurred at all if not for the input of Ariel Sharon.  Sharon-- a hawk if there ever was one--told Begin that withdrawing from the Sinai (one of Sadat's conditions) was worth it for peace with Egypt, so Begin agreed to withdraw.  Sharon is typically not considered a peace maker.

There is a very moving part of the book when injured Egyptians and injured Israelis from the 73 war meet at the signing of the peace treaty. Initially, the groups stay away from one another. But a blind Israeli asks his son to bring him to the Egyptian group of ex soldiers.  And when he does an Egyptian soldier in a wheelchair wheels himself out to meet the Israeli and they embrace. Then all the soldiers from both sides meet in the middle of the room and embrace.

The Egypt Israeli peace is not perfect. There are bumps. And nobody of my vintage is unaware that Anwar Sadat was assassinated by his own people because he had the audacity to attempt peace with Israel.

Still there is peace between Egypt and Israel. It is not impossible. A tip of the hat to Carter and Sadat particularly.

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