THIRTEEN DAYS IN DECEMBER. Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. By Lawrence Wright. Knopf. 289 pages. $27.95
The genius of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright's brilliant reconstruction of the 1978 Camp David peace conference is not only his highly effective combination of straight-forward chronology, historical background and investigation of the "tectonic" religious influence on events, it is also the powerful emotional stew he produces in the reader. No matter the cynicism, preconceptions or exhaustion one brings to this topic, it is impossible to finish the book unmoved.
Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian, believed that he had been put in office in part to bring peace to the Holy Land, and that the principle actors on both sides of the divide could be brought to see the "inherent good" in each other, according to Wright. Carter was quickly disillusioned.
Raised in the segregated American South, and a victim of political setbacks that had forced him to grasp the wisdom of compromise, Carter's life was a feast of sunshine compared to that of Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Begin and Sadat were products of "anguished cultures," both had spent time in prison, both were steely willed individuals, both passionate advocates for their people. Begin was deeply analytical and capable of "grinding an issue down to a fine powder of details," while Sadat preferred the grand gesture.
Prickly and proud, they made Carter's life a misery as he shuttled between the two across the bucolic acres of Camp David, frequently close to exploding, and not above leaning on them with the direst of threats, primarily the shutting off of American support for their nations. Wright's description of Carter's cold blue eyes 12 inches from Sadat's face is disturbing.
The author makes a shrewd editorial decision to include traditional stories from Jewish and Muslim religious sources juxtaposed with archaeological evidence disputing their veracity. Initially, this sparks questions concerning intent, questions that are gradually overshadowed by the impression that Wright is giving his subject the full measure of respect, a rather significant accomplishment given the centrality of religion in the Middle East.
Wright also describes the intricacies of what occurred in the region in the post-World War II era. In 1947, a United Nations vote had divided the territory of Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs, with Jerusalem designated an international zone. The plan was never realized.
When the State of Israel was formed the following year, armies from five Arab countries, none of whom, Wright argues, favored the creation of a Palestinian state, set out to destroy the new nation. Israel's policy of expelling Palestinians complicated the picture, leaving the Palestinians rudderless. What may have been an Israeli-Palestinian problem became "Arabized," Wright claims, setting the tone for what ensued over the following decades.
Needless to say, a myriad of other factors have influenced the conflict. Wright's deft handling of these illustrates both the intractable nature of the situation and the real challenge of assigning blame.
In 1978, President Carter drew up his own list of what he considered to be the most important talking points: settlements, the question of an independent Palestinian state and Palestinian autonomy, Israeli military presence in the West Bank and Gaza, the West Bank itself, Jerusalem and what "peace" really meant. A second's glance reveals what remain hot button issues.
At the close of the conference, two "frameworks" were brought forth, one concerning the status of the Palestinians, which had little impact, and a second that laid the groundwork for the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Wright asserts that, despite the unresolved issues from the period, there has not been a single violation of this agreement since it was signed.
Sadat and Begin received Nobel Prizes for their part in the talks. Tragically, by making peace with the enemy, Sadat secured his fate and was assassinated in 1981 by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Begin's old age was spent holed up in a small apartment, depressed and isolated from the world. The indomitable Jimmy Carter went on to have an infinitely more successful post-presidency than he had a presidency, writing books, working for humanitarian causes and winning his own Nobel in 2002 for his continuing efforts to secure peaceful solutions to international conflicts.
"Thirteen Days in September" does not always make for easy reading. The you-are-there tone occasionally can feel like a stretch. Though the book is based on a thorough reading of solid primary and secondary sources, it leaves the reader with the vague feeling that he will never know all the details of the private wrangling. What is recorded here of the constant tit-for-tat exchanges and bickering is sometimes nauseating, like taking a roller coaster ride after a heavy meal.
Wright is a first-class writer and pulls no emotional punches when he describes two sets of people perpetually at each other's throats.
Sadat had believed in the peace deal but, "it did not bring the complete resolution that one seeks in war," and he paid the ultimate price.
The attitude on the other side was well put by Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan at the funeral of a friend murdered by the Palestinians. "This is the choice: To be prepared and armed, strong and resolute or to let the sword fall from our fist and our lives be cut down."
The road ahead seems murky, but Wright has provided a superb take on a profound historical moment when peace in the Middle East, at least to a stubbornly idealistic president of the United States, seemed alluringly achievable.
Reviewer Rosemary Michaud is a writer in Charleston.