Friday, December 02, 2016

13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright (Book Review #71 of 2016)



13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright

I suppose the title is a play on 13 Day in October about the Cuban Missile Crisis; there is nothing that dramatic in this book. The strength of the book is that the author delves into biographical details of every character at Camp David in those days, even giving a history on how Camp David itself was saved from Carter's budget axe after inauguration. All of the main characters have written autobiographies and several other books, so it's nice to have a more miniaturized form by an author who has presumably read them himself and uses them to help understand each party's motives and emotions in the peace conference. I listened to the Washington Post's Presidential podcast episode after this book and found much of the same information covered.

September, 1978 was sort of the peak of the Carter Administration, or the beginning of the end. The Peace Treaty, when signed in March the following year, marked the beginning of the end of the presidencies of President Sadat and Carter and PM Menachem Begin's government in Israel. With a religious commitment to peace, Carter had been inexperienced with Arab policy until his time as a governor eyeing a run for President. He visited Israel in 1973 and noted the strong Jewish voting bloc and lobby, which tended to vote Democratic. Egypt's Anwar Sadat was religious as well. Sadat was the grandson of a slave whereas one of Carter's constituencies in Georgia were the descendents of slaves. Wright discusses how Carter walked the racial tightrope as a politician, winning over African Americans in private meetings and later implementing policies that he would not have advocated publicly for fear of losing the white vote. His campaign played the "race card" as needed, a blemish in hindsight but pragmatism at the time. But he had been criticized as a "nigger lover" all of his life and was deeply aware of black/white differences from an early age. Wright gives a history of Carter as governor of Georgia, and the difficulty of running as progressive conservative. Carter is an odd president in many ways and apparently a micromanager who often had the most facts in the room and could be rather difficult to work for.

Sadat was an interesting character who came to power after the death of Abdel Nasser in 1970 and had worked quickly to show himself to be a bold leader. Sadat grew up admiring and studying Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Adolph Hitler, who he saw as reformers, and particularly liked Hitler's suspicion of Jews. His military's bold 1973 crossing of the Suez had created great Israeli insecurity, even if it ended up being a tactical defeat for Egypt. Former General and later Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan worked secretly with Sadat's representatives when Sadat made rumblings about peace. Sadat made the unthinkable move of going to Israel, including the temple mount in Jerusalem on Eid al-Adha; one of his bodyguards died of a heart attack. Sadat gave an unprecedented speech at the Knesset in which he demanded Israel withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories of 1967 as a condition for peace, a non-starter in the Knesset. Begin and Sadat both were combating economic stagnation and inflation at home when they arrived at Camp David for the accords.

Menachem Begin defended the Israeli occupation after the Six Day War and worked to dispel the "myth" that there were Palestinians in the land before Israel, reaching back to ancient roots that Jimmy Carter would have been plenty biblically familiar with. Begin spent time with Carter in Washington, but Carter held out hope of negotiating some kind of deal. If you believe that you are God's chosen people, then you had the right to strengthen the rights of others. Meanwhile, Yasser Arafat's PLO did their best to distract and disrupt any negotiations via terrorist attacks. Wright writes that Begin had similarly pioneered terrorist tactics against the British Mandate in Palestine in order to get the UK to relent and allow more Jews to migrate from Europe to save them from the holocaust. Ironically, Osama bin Laden later read Begin's book to learn how to make a movement from terrorist to statesman.

The author chronicles each day's events with the tangents into histories and personalities of all the participants. Future UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was in Egypt's delegation. Rosalyn Carter gets her own mini biography. Wright delves deep into the frustrations, the shouting matches, the lists of points to resolve, and the sticking points that almost derailed the negotiations. The participants tried to choreograph and sometimes walk on eggshells to keep things going. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski loses to Menachem Begin at chess on purpose at one point in a psychological tactic.

Sometimes there is too much information, but to understand the ramifications of the peace accords you need a lot of historical context. Begin hearkened back to the Old Testament and saw the founding of Israel as a "new Exodus." They revisit all the wars and battles fought, with particular focus on independence and atrocities in 1940 and the consequences of 1973. Wright rejects any historical timeline of Genesis-Exodus that would put the book of Joshua in any actual reality, writing that Jericho and Ai had already been destroyed. Wright writes this as incontrovertible fact, when the reality is anthropologists and archaeologists still debate who the Sea People were, when and whether an Exodus occurred, and what explains the collapse of civilizations around the time of the 12th century (see Eric Cline's book 1174 BC for just one example). Begin also understands American history, citing Gettysburg and other events. In a roundabout way, Nixon and Kissinger's policy of "detente" made the Camp David Accords possible, writes Wright.

The settlements were particularly the sticking point. Carter wanted an official Israeli commitment to the suspension of settlements on the West Bank and elsewhere. Moshe Dayan started to undermine the negotiations over disagreements with Begin about the Palestinian settlements and would later resign his position after the actual treaty was signed. General Ariel Sharon, a war hawk signed off on settlement evacuation. Carter thought he had agreement on the suspension of Israel's building of settlements but Begin never produced the letter. On Day 13, there was a failure over the state of Jerusalem, which the US still does not officially recognize as the capital of Israel. (These are the days before personal computers, every jot or tittle in wording has to have new drafts typed up, giving a new appreciation for the President's staff.) Carter personally draws up redrafts and cajoles and does all he can, shuttling back and forth. Just when things look like they won't happen, they do. They agree upon "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East" and "A Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel." Among the key points of agreement to present to the world would be that there would be a five-year transition plan to sovereignty and autonomy for the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza. (The stipulations of this agreement were rejected by the UN). Israel agreed to withdraw from the Sinai and Egypt would require permission to place troops there in the future, like a neutral zone of free passage. Egypt would officially recognize Israel, and the US would give them both money. Further, the peace treaty would have to be approved by Egypt's parliament and the Jewish Knesset to be binding--nothing they would shake hands on here would truly matter.

After smiles and handshakes, things go south when Begin and Sadat return home. Begin seemingly begins to undermine the deal and Carter has to travel to the Middle East himself to iron it out, his Presidency in the balance. He succeeds, the treaty is officially signed, and peace is had, but at great price. Egypt is suspended from the Arab League as most conservatives, and the PLO, reject the deal and the UN refuses to acknowledge or enforce key aspects of the agreement. In 1981, Sadat leads a viscous crackdown and mass arrests of many parties on intelligence of a coup plot by radicals. In October, he is assassinated in a celebration of the 1973 war by radical conservative members of the army. Menachem Begin's Likud party faces a setback in Parliament and Begin eventually withdraws from public life and is a recluse that barely agrees to speak to President Carter on the phone years later. Gaza and the West Bank would not have the five years to autonomy they would hope for, but Egypt and Israel would have a decent relationship of trade and peace. Both have made billions in aid money and hardware from the United States. Carter cemented his legacy as a peacemaker, but would lose the 1980 election partly over his inability to do anything about the Iranian hostage crisis. (A memoir I read recently by the Ambassador to Turkey in 1980-1981 suggested Carter's various quirks toward foreign policy (particularly budget cuts) were not very popular. I've not read any books suggesting that the US military was sorry to see Carter leave, either. But he seems to be a man of consistent principle.)

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Other books I have reviewed on Israel's founding and modern history:
A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson (4 stars)
My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (4 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (5 stars)
I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish (4 stars)
Six Days of War by Michael Oren (4 stars)
13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright (4 stars)
Jerusalem 1913 by Amy Dockser Marcus (2.5 stars)

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