Lawrence Wright’s new book vividly recalls 1978 Camp David summit


“Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David”

by Lawrence Wright

Alfred A. Knopf, 368 pages, $27.95

There’s an air of tragedy hovering over Lawrence Wright’s excellent new book on the 1978 peace negotiations at Camp David, presided over by then-President Jimmy Carter.

During those fateful autumn days, the world watched as three world leaders — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — shook hands at the White House after reaching an agreement to end three decades of war. Every reader of Wright’s book, however, will know what’s coming in the book’s epilogue — the promise of peace in the Middle East was fleeting and ultimately proved false.

“Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David” is Wright’s exceedingly balanced, highly readable and appropriately sober look at the peace talks that unfolded at the wooded military base in Maryland.

The agreement Carter brokered between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the crowning achievement of his otherwise disappointing presidency. Sadat and Begin later were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Wright’s book is no paean to the leaders.

Instead, he casts a critical and honest eye upon the three men. Much of “Thirteen Days” details the fractured personal and public histories that brought Carter, Begin and Sadat to power and eventually to Camp David. And it portrays the negotiations themselves as a tense series of meetings between powerful men who whined, pouted and screamed to get their way.

Carter hoped the opposing camps would warm to each other in an informal setting complete with bicycles and jogging paths. But as Wright points out, many in the two delegations had faced off against each other in one or more of the four wars the Israelis and Arabs had fought over the previous three decades.

Wright describes Carter’s efforts to break the deadlockand eventually, Carter made the decision to push for a limited agreement between Israel and Egypt, leaving the fate of Jerusalem and the Palestinians unsettled.

When the treaty was finally signed, Egypt had effectively severed its links to the Palestinian cause, Wright says. Without “a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions.”

But the final outcome was not entirely a disaster. As Wright points out, there has not been a single violation of the agreement in the 35 years since. Even as endless battles rage nearby, Egypt and Israel remain at peace with each other.