Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

21965079Nonfiction — print. Knopf, 2014. 368 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David”, Wright’s book covers the development of the historic Camp David Accords of 1978  and the frameworks written during the Accords that would lead to the first peace treaty to exist between Israel and an Arab neighbor. He guides the reader through the event of each day explaining how the seesaw of negotiations tipped several times a day.

Yet Wright steps back long enough to provide background information on these three actors, whom Wright maintain represent three different religions, and to explain the religiously-based arguments both the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat offer to justify their claims on the disputed territories of the Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, and Jerusalem. He also integrates others present at Camp David and important to the negotiations – Moshe Dayan, Osama el-Baz, Ezer Weizmann, Zbigniew Brzezinski, etcetera – into the narrative providing insight into their actions and motivations a book solely focused on Sadat, Carter, and Begin would not be able to achieve.

This book is a highly accessible read due to Wright’s particular method of conveying information to his reader, which seems to anticipate the follow-up questions his reader may possess as it stops the timeline of the Accords to explain how or why one of the actors is displaying such behavior. His attention to the stories of the Bible and Quaran, as they relate to the exodus of Moses and the Jews from Egypt and the “facts on the ground” used to establish historically-based claims on disputed land, is particularly insightful helping to alleviate any confusion as to why Begin calls the West Bank “Judea and Samaria” and why all three men have different visions for Jerusalem.

I admit, I knew little about the American president Jimmy Carter’s role in negotiations despite having read his book on Israel-Palestine and even less about Sadat so I was intrigued by the portrait of these two men against the one I have for Begin. He mentions in the afterward how the book grew out of a play he was hired to write about the men of the Camp David Accords, and the attention to psychology and background such an undertaking would require shows in the book. Flaws of all three men – Carter’s naïveté, Begin’s seemingly illogical hardline, Sadat’s “Noble Peace Prize Complex” – are explored within the text; I could feel my own frustration with these three men rising as I turned the page.

Wright’s narrative is surprisingly short – less than three hundred pages excluding footnotes and bibliography – for how much detail is packed into the novel. There are clearly opportunities for more information to be added; the final three days of the summit felt rather rushed and the epilogue seemed underwhelming for the historic significance of the Camp David Accords.

Although, how much more time needs to spent on stating that the Accords removed Egypt from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? As Wright succinctly put it, “without a powerful Arab champion [in Egypt], Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people” (pg. 288). And that fact alone makes this book an important read due to the understanding it provides of the Israeli-Egyptian relationship and the role of Arab nations in the plight of the Palestinians in the past and the future.

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