In September of 1978, President Jimmy Carter invited Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to the presidential retreat at Camp David. Mr. Carter’s objective was to forge a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Following a 13-day ordeal of tense negotiations that involved the three primary leaders and their accompanying staffs, the summit did ultimately produce a signed agreement.
In 2014, peace still exists between Egypt and Israel.
Lawrence Wright has written a book reporting what took place during that thirteen day period at Camp David in 1978. The book was published in September this year, 2014 by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.
Here a few things I learned while reading Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David.
Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan accompanied Prime Minister Begin at the summit. Dayan, born in 1915 in the first Israeli kibbutz, had been Defense Minister during the 6-day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
~ Very soon after the war of 1967, in which Israel had gained control of much territory, including the Sinai and Jerusalem, Moshe Dayan met with Muslim leaders in Jerusalem. Although the Muslims had feared that Dayan might allow the Israelis to destroy the mosques on top of the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif), Dayan did otherwise. He told the Muslim leaders, including the Mufti, to “resume their Friday sermons” at the Al Aqsa mosque. He also eliminated barricades and checkpoints that had formerly separated Arab neighborhoods from Jewish areas.
~ In 1972, President Sadat sent Soviet military experts out of Egypt, back to USSR. By “pulling Egypt out of the Soviet embrace” Sadat was able to steer the Egyptian economy away from the socialist model.
~ The 1978 American-sponsored peace summit at Camp David got off to a very slow start. After nine days of awkward, getting-to-know-you sessions between two delegations whose nations had formerly met only on battlefields of war, the “first concrete agreement of the Camp David summit became a reality.” This little breakthrough occurred when an Egyptian lawyer, Osama el-Baz, met with an Israeli lawyer, Aharon Barak, to hash out some legal hurtles. The proverbial sunbeam broke through dark clouds of gloom when the attorneys agreed to delete a phrase. Ironically, the phrase was this sentence: “They have both also stated that there shall be be no more war between them.” In other words, the negotiators were starting to get realistic about the limitations of their proposed peace agreement.
~ Also on Day 9 of the summit, the issue of Israeli settlements in the Sinai emerged as the main point of contention obstructing an agreement. This became evident after President Carter became furious with the Egyptian attorney Baz and berated him for misrepresenting his boss’ (Sadat’s) position on another issue.
~ On Day 10, Anwar el-Sadat and Moshe Dayan, two men under whose command their two armies had clashed on the Sinai battlegrounds five years prior, met in Sadat’s apartment at Camp David. Lawrence Wright wrote: “Sadat received Dayan with a polite smile.” Despite Carter’s request to Dayan that the battle-horses “not discuss the issues” lest they descend into entrenched positions, the two peace-seeking soldiers fell into an exchange about the Israelis’ refusal to give up their settlements in the Sinai. But the silver lining behind the cloud was that now the issue of settlements could come full-force to the front lines of their waging peace. Progress, believe it or not, was at last on their dark horizon as the two sides faced each other face-to-face, but not on a desert battlefield. (. . .”settlements” dispute sound familiar to our 2014 ears?)
~ The Yom Kippur War of 1973 exposed Israel’s vulnerability in a way that compelled their electorate to turn toward Begin’s hardline defense strategies and the Likud party, in 1977.
~ Menachem Begin, born in Russian Belarus in 1913, survived both the Nazi Holocaust and the Soviet gulag before being sent to Palestine as a soldier in the Polish army in December 1942. When Begin got to Palestine, one might say he never looked back. He had found that home that all Jews await. His persecuted, embattled life-story explains, in my opinion, the extremity of his Irgun military strategies and terrorist insurrections in British Palestine after World War II. His 1978 presence at Jimmy Carter’s peace-seeking marathon for thirteen days, and his consent to its final agreement, was unlikely, to say the least.
But I will not “say the least.” Begin’s concession of the Sinai to Egypt was nothing short of miraculous. There are conditions in this world that can turn a heart of stone into a human heart. A wise peacemaking Christian man who happened to be President of the strongest nation in the world had a hand in this amazing turnaround.
Speaking of which, I’ll skip a Sinai-sized bulk of my notes about this peace-seeking ordeal, to mention a turning point (one of many) that came on the last day, Day 13:
~ As a final signing ceremony was being prepared at the White House, Begin ordered his delegation to withdraw from the Camp David meetings. The thorny issue of Jerusalem was the prickling crown that was about to draw fatal blood from an almost-compete agreement. That old death-struggle between Jew and Muslim had raised its ugly head when Begin’s life-defining resolve was threatened by a letter from President Carter. It was a side letter, a mere addendum, and not a legal part of the agreement, that came to the forefront of their last-minute contentions. Carter had written the letter as a point of clarification at Sadat’s request. Lawrence Wright wrote:
“If Carter retracted the letter, he would lose Sadat. If he did not, he would lose Begin. There was no way out.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch. . .er, at the White House, Rosalynn and the staff were making preparations for a signing ceremony to take place in a few hours.
“The true loneliness of leadership is found in such moments, when great gains and great losses await a decision and there is no way of tallying in advance the final cost.”
I will not disclose how this last-minute obstacle was overcome, but I will say this: When Jimmy Carter delivered a photographic gift to Menachem Begin as he was sitting on the porch, the old soldier’s heart of stone took a back seat, at least for a few minutes, to a heart of flesh. Those photographs were addressed, individually, to Begin’s grandchildren.
Now once again, I will pass over copious notes to offer one final thing I learned while reading Lawrence Wright’s book.
~ In 1981, after all this laborious peacemaking had passed, and after Israel had formally withdrawn from the Sinai peninsula, President Sadat was participating in a ceremonial event to honor Egypt, and to commemorate the war of 1973. Sadat stood on a decorated platform with many other dignitaries, clothed in a field marshal’s uniform, arrayed in his finest honorary regalia. A band played; fireworks were on display. Military jets passed overhead with acrobatics; a military parade passed in front of the platform for their review. But one troop truck halted. Egyptian soldiers leaped to the ground, brandishing automatic rifles and grenades. One of them raced toward the platform.
“Sadat abruptly stood up and saluted.”
~ And that was the last time Anwar el-Sadat stood on this earth. He was a leader who paid the dearest price of all for his willingness to break ranks with Arab intransigence and make peace with Jacob. He recovered lands for the Egyptians that they could not reclaim through war. That final stand on the platform–that final salute on October 6, 1981–demonstrated his last full measure of devotion to his country, Egypt. It was also courageous expression of his late-in-life enlistment with a fragile project called peace– a process that sometimes breaks through, like a sunbeam from a dark cloud, into our war-torn world.