13 Days Of High Emotion That Led To The Egypt-Israel Peace
When President Jimmy Carter decided to bring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David in 1978 to broker peace talks, his hope that the two men would like each other was "completely naïve and mistaken," says journalist Lawrence Wright.
The first couple of days turned into a screaming match.
"His idea ... was that if he could just get these two honorable men alone — away from the press of their domestic politics — and let them get to know each other, that they would ... come to trust one another," Wright tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
"He couldn't have been more wrong about that because after the second day he had to separate them physically. ... [First lady] Rosalynn Carter told me she could hear them yelling at each other in the other room all day long. ... It was not a well thought-out plan on Carter's part."
After 13 days, a peace accord was brokered between Israel and Egypt. Wright illuminates the story in his new book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. It's a day-by-day account of the meetings and the history leading up to it.
Wright has written extensively about the effects of religious beliefs — including extreme religious beliefs — on people's lives. He won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, his book about the history of al-Qaida.
Even though Carter was able to bring about the historic agreement, there was fallout. Sadat was assassinated in 1981.
"When he signed those accords, he essentially signed his death warrant," Wright says. "There's no question that making peace with Israel was the first of the charges against him."
On President Carter's inexperience with the Middle East and why he wanted to help bring peace
It's an odd story. He was a one-term governor from Georgia. He had very little experience in the Middle East. The only Jew that he had known growing up was his uncle. ... The first time he had met an Arab was at the Daytona 500 when he was governor of Georgia, so he was inexperienced. He did go to the Holy Land with Rosalynn, his wife, in 1973 when he was secretly considering running for president, and he was very affected by that experience. And [when] he came home, he had decided that he would do whatever he could to bring peace to the Holy Land. ...
[Carter] had this extraordinary Christian faith, and he felt that he was mandated to use it. He wasn't daunted by the fact that everybody else thought it was completely impossible.
On what Sadat and Begin wanted from the peace talks
Sadat started a war in 1973 in order to regain the [Suez] Canal in the Sinai, and it was such a shock to Israel that the Egyptians had crossed the canal successfully and came within hailing distance of Tel Aviv. And although the Israelis recovered and occupied actually more territory in Egypt, they were badly shaken by that event.
Sadat wanted Sinai back, but he felt like he couldn't make a separate peace with Israel, that the Arabs would turn against him if he did. So he wanted to have a comprehensive peace that would include the Palestinian situation, return the occupied territories and allow the Palestinians to return to their previous homes. Nothing could be further from [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin's mind.
Begin's whole career had been about expanding Israel's territory and guaranteeing its safety. Not only was he not intending to surrender any territory, he wanted to institutionalize the demilitarization of the Sinai in order to make sure that there was 150 miles of sand between Israel and the main Egyptian force — that was their safety belt in his opinion. As for the West Bank, he wasn't going to entertain any idea at all about surrendering that territory.
On Carter's affection for Sadat
When Carter came into the White House, he started interviewing leaders of the Middle East, looking for someone who he could work with. And he was not impressed at all as they came one after another to the White House to meet the president — until finally Anwar Sadat arrived and it was kismet of some sort.
Carter talked about how he "loved" him, and that's not the normal language of diplomacy, but his staffers all said that there was something clearly going on there — that there was a genuine feeling between the two of them.
I think that encouraged Sadat to think they could make the relationship of the United States resemble the friendship of Sadat and Carter, and I think that also concerned Menachem Begin that Egypt would come to replace Israel as America's chief ally in the Middle East.
On the two leaders almost walking out, and Carter's reaction
Implicitly, [Carter] was threatening war because he was saying that if there's another war, [the U.S.] is going to be on Israel's side, and Egypt will be alone and friendless in the world. It was a very sobering moment. Carter told me that he had never been angrier in his entire life. It was clear that he made a real impression on Sadat. Sadat had already ordered the helicopter; he had packed his clothes; he was out of there. He was worried that he was going to be asked to give up too much at Camp David, and he wouldn't be able to justify it when he got home.
[Begin] didn't really have a position. He didn't want to agree to any of the terms that Carter was putting forward. Finally, he began to realize that he was going to have to agree with something in order to preserve the relationship with the United States. Carter told him that if he left Camp David, he was going to make sure that the American people knew who was to blame [for the collapse of the peace talks]. He was going to go to Congress; he was going to lay it on them.
One of [Carter's] speechwriters was told to draw up a speech in which Carter was going to ask the Israeli people to overthrow their government, through a vote, but imagine! You can't believe how that would be received in Israel or even the Congress of the United States. Things had gotten so personal at the point. Carter believed so strongly that peace was worth it, but he was about to blow everything to smithereens — if either of these men walked out, they were going to pay a price, and he wanted to make sure they knew it.
On Sadat's assassination
Many people in the Egyptian delegation refused to attend the signing ceremony, not only because they didn't agree with it, [but also because] they were afraid for their lives. They were worried that ... they would be hounded and threatened, and of course, in the case of Sadat, that was true.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Lawrence Wright has written extensively about the effects of religious belief, including extreme religious beliefs, on people's lives. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about the history of al-Qaida called "The Looming Tower." His book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood And The Prison Of Belief" was nominated a National Book Award.
His new book is the story of the peace accord between Israel and Egypt that was brokered by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 - or as Wright puts it, how three men - Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat - representing three religions, met for 13 days at the presidential retreat at Camp David in the autumn of 1978 in order to solve a dispute that religion itself had largely caused; an account of how these three flawed men strengthened, but also, encumbered by their faiths, managed to forge a partial and incomplete peace, an achievement that nonetheless stands as one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the 20th century. Wright's book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David." Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on this new book.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Do you see this book in a way as a prequel to understanding, not only what's happening between Israel and the Palestinians, but the rise of militant Islam?
WRIGHT: Yeah. You know, Islam took a turn after the 1967 war when Israel so decisively defeated three Arab armies in six days. And it was an extraordinary moment in the history of Israel of course, and even many fundamentalist Christians felt like prophecy was being fulfilled.
But for Islam - especially for the nations that surrounded Israel and had been so soundly beaten - it was a moment of great introspection where people began to feel that God was not on their side. And why would that be? We weren't being strong enough Muslims. So the rise of fundamentalism inside Islam took a giant leap and that movement has obviously continued up until this day.
GROSS: The peace between Egypt and Israel has lasted nearly 35 years so far. So not everyone is old enough to remember when they were actually at war. So before we talk about the process of making peace, I'm going to ask you to describe the wars between Egypt and Israel and what they were about, why peace was so necessary.
WRIGHT: Well, Israel was founded in 1948, you know. It was supposed to be two states, Israel and Palestine. And in May of 1948, as soon as the state of Israel declared itself, five Arab armies attacked. And they weren't actually entirely attacking Israel. It was a land-grab for Palestine. They just dismembered that state. And so Jordan got the West Bank, Egypt got Gaza and Israel took the rest of it. And that was the end of Palestine.
GROSS: And how does the 1956 Suez Crisis figure into the wars between Israel and Egypt?
WRIGHT: Well, this was a turning point in the Arab attitude towards Israel. France and England jointly owned and controlled the Suez Canal, which President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt nationalized. And they decided to repossess it militarily, but they needed a pretext. So they asked Israel to take over the Sinai so that they - these great powers could come in and force both sides away and then retake over the canal once more. And Israel agreed to do that, and it was so egregious that President Eisenhower forced everybody to relinquish any control over the Sinai and the Suez Canal. It was a turning point for England and France. They had been great powers up until that point. But then they sort of receded into the chorus, and that was when the era of the superpowers was really being born.
GROSS: One of the things that had to be resolved in the Camp David peace talks was what to do about Sinai, which Israel had taken from Egypt. How did Israel occupy Sinai?
WRIGHT: In 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had made some very threatening gestures. He blocked off the Straits of Tiran, which closed Israeli shipping from southern Israel. And he had ordered the U.N. troops, the peacekeepers, out of Sinai. And Israel believed that it was about to be attacked. And there was great panic in the country.
I mean, the Holocaust was not that far in the past. And this feeling that they were going to be annihilated was so great, there were trenches dug for mass graves in city parks. And, you know, the whole nation was just quivering with anxiety, and then suddenly, Israel struck. And within an hour, they had completely destroyed the Egyptian Air Force. So the war was essentially over. But it took six days to wind up complete battle victories over three Arab nations. It was an incredibly decisive war. And in that war, Israel took over Sinai. It occupied the West Bank and Old Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Those are the areas that were called the occupied territories.
GROSS: Why was peace between Egypt and Israel such a priority for President Jimmy Carter that he basically put his presidency on the line?
WRIGHT: It's an odd story, you know. He was a one-term governor from Georgia. He had very little experience in the Middle East. The only Jew that he had known growing up was his uncle, Louis Braunstein, an insurance salesman in Chattanooga. The first time he met an Arab was at the Daytona 500 when he was governor of Georgia. So he had, you know - he was inexperienced. He did go to the Holy Land with Rosalynn, his wife, in 1973 when he was secretly considering running for president. And he was very affected by that experience, and he came home. He had decided that he would do whatever he could to bring peace to the Holy Land.
GROSS: You write that President Carter believed that God had put them in office in part to bring peace to the Holy Land. Did you get that from the president's diary?
WRIGHT: Well, and he told me that as well. He's not shy about saying that he felt that he'd been placed in that position in order to make a difference, and he was, you know - had this extraordinary Christian faith. And he felt that he was mandated to use it. And he wasn't daunted by the fact that everybody else thought it was completely impossible.
GROSS: In profiling Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, you say that they both had been imprisoned; they both had blood on their hands.
Let's start with Menachem Begin. You say he helped write the terrorist playbook. He was with the Irgun. Why don't you briefly describe what the Irgun was?
WRIGHT: The Irgun was a terrorist organization in Israel that had grown out of a militant - paramilitary group called Betar that Begin had been a part of in Poland. It was fighting against the British when he arrived in Palestine at the end of World War II, and the British had a mandate to run Palestine until the issues of statehood could be resolved. It was a goal of Irgun to drive the British out. And in the process, one of the most egregious crimes was the bombing of the King David Hotel. Nearly 100 people were killed in that bombing. It happened that part of the hotel was an office for the British mandate authority. And Begin had hoped to not have any casualties, but he said that he had sent a warning. Although, the head of the mandate at the time said they never received such a thing.
After the British were driven out, the Irgun turned its attention to the Palestinians, and they wanted to clear out Palestinian villages to make room for the Israelis. One of the villages was a little place called Deir Yassin, which was near Jerusalem. And it was on a main road coming into the city, and in Begin's opinion - and to be honest, in David Ben-Gurion's opinion as well - the village had to be eliminated.
So Begin's account is that he sent in a sound truck at 4 in the morning to tell the villagers to flee. But the truck unfortunately fell into a ditch, and nobody heard the warning. But when the assault began, there was resistance from the villagers. And so the Irgun men, along with the members from another terrorist organization called Stern Gang, went house-to-house throwing grenades and massacring whole families. Surviving women and children were paraded through Jerusalem on a flatbed truck, and some 20 men who had survived were taken to a quarry and executed. And in the Palestinian community, the word went out right away. Panic ensued and the great flight of Palestinians, more than 700,000 of them, took place right after that.
GROSS: So Manachem Begin plays this major role in what the Palestinians call the Nakba, the - what does that translate to?
WRIGHT: The Catastrophe. You know, it was a turning point in the history of that region. And of course, you know, you look back at the way those refugees, you know, spilled out; they thought that they would be able to come back when the dust settled, but they were not permitted to be. And most of the Arab countries where they took refuge never allowed them to become citizens. So they were never digested into other societies. And, you know, if you spend time in the Middle East, you see, you know, so much evidence of the refugees. Like Gaza, for instance, is essentially one large refugee camp, now 1.7 million people.
GROSS: Let's get to the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. He served prison time, and you say he had blood on his hands. What was the blood on his hands?
WRIGHT: He was a member of an assassination group. It was started by Muhammad Ibrahim Kamel, who later became his foreign minister. But their goal was to kill British soldiers - similar to Irgun, on a more modest scale. But when Sadat took it over, he thought he had larger ambitions for it. He wanted to kill the prime minister of Egypt and attempted to do that on several occasions and failed. But he did succeed in killing one of the government ministers.
His goal was to break the collaboration. Any Egyptian politician that was working with the British - and of course, that would be everybody in the Egyptian government - he wanted to assassinate them to make a show that you cannot work with the British. And so his goal was to break apart the alliance between the Egyptian government and the British occupiers.
GROSS: So what did they each watch? What did Begin and Sadat hope to get or hope to avoid happen in the peace talks? Let's start with Sadat.
WRIGHT: Well, Sadat had - you know, he started a war in 1973 in order to regain the canal on the Sinai. And it was such a shock to Israel that, you know, the Egyptians had crossed the canal successfully and came within hailing distance of Tel Aviv. And although the Israelis recovered and actually occupied even more territory in Egypt, they were badly shaken by that event.
And Sadat wanted Sinai back. But he felt that he couldn't make a separate peace with Israel, that the Arabs would turn against him if he did. So he wanted to have a comprehensive peace that would include the Palestinian situation, return the occupied territories and allow the Palestinians to return to their previous homes. Nothing could be further from Begin's mind. Begin's whole career had been about expanding Israel's territory and guaranteeing its safety. Not only was he not intending to surrender any territory, he wanted to institutionalize the demilitarization of the Sinai in order to make sure that there was 150 miles of sand between Israel and the main Egyptian force. That was their safety belt in his opinion. And as for the West Bank, he wasn't going to entertain any idea at all about surrendering any of that territory.
GROSS: And what about President Carter? Did he enter this with a plan in mind?
WRIGHT: You know, he had thoughts about it. And, you know, there had been meetings in the past. They had a general idea about what a reasonable resolution would look like, an accord. But his idea when he went to Camp David - a completely naive and mistaken one - was that if he could just get these two honorable men alone, away from the press of their domestic politics and let them get to know each other, that they would like each other, and they would come to trust one another. He couldn't have been - (laughter) he couldn't have been more wrong about that because after the second day, he had to separate them physically. They were screaming at each other. And Rosalynn Carter told me she could hear them yelling at each other in the other room all day long. It was not a well-thought-out plan on Carter's part.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner. He wrote the book "The Looming Tower" about the history of al-Qaida. He wrote an excellent book about the history of Scientology. He's written a lot about this combination of religion and culture and religion in politics. His new book is about the Camp David Accords and the history of Middle East war and Middle East peace between Israel and Egypt. The new book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright and his new book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin And Sadat At Camp David." And it's not only about the Middle East peace talks that brought peace between Egypt and Israel, it's about the larger conflicts in the Middle East. Well, you write about how close Carter was with Sadat and that Carter almost considered him a brother. And he did not have that kind of relationship with Begin.
WRIGHT: No. When Carter came into the White House, he started interviewing leaders of the Middle East looking for someone who he could work with, and he just did not - he was not impressed at all as they came one after another into the White House to meet the president. Until finally Anwar Sadat arrived, and it was kismet of some sort, I mean, Carter talked about how he loved him. You know, it's not the normal language of diplomacy, but his staffers all said that there was clearly something going on there. That there was a genuine feeling between the two of them, and I think that encouraged Sadat to think that they could make the relationship of the United States resemble the friendship of Sadat and Carter. And I think that also concerned Menachem Begin that Egypt would come to replace Israel as America's chief ally in the Middle East.
GROSS: Carter used that as a bargaining chip with him?
WRIGHT: He certainly did. There was this level of threat that was operating later in the end of the first week and the beginning of the second. Both sides began to feel that they had too much at stake here at Camp David, and they wanted to get out of there. But they couldn't find a way to get out of Camp David without undermining the relationship of their country with the United States. So Carter in a way had them trapped, but of course he had himself trapped there as well.
GROSS: Carter actually used his relationship to Sadat to keep Sadat at Camp David. There was a moment when Sadat was like, he was walking out; he was so frustrated; he was leaving. And Carter basically used their relationship and said you leave and, you know, Egypt is not going to be as close an ally with the United States. Our relationship is going to be over. Look at what you're good to be giving up, why would you do that?
WRIGHT: Right. Implicitly he was threatening war because he was saying that, you know, if there's another war, we're going be on Israel's side and Egypt will be alone and friendless in the world. And it was very sobering moment. Carter told me that, you know, he had never been angrier in his entire life. And it was clear that he made a real impression on Sadat. Sadat had already ordered the helicopter; he had packed his clothes; he was out of there. He was worried that he was going to be asked to give up too much at Camp David and he wouldn't be able to justify it when he got home.
GROSS: And Begin was on the verge of walking out, too, at at least one point. What were his reasons for almost being out the door?
WRIGHT: Well, Begin was the only one - when he arrived at Camp David, he was the only one who he thought could walk away without signing anything. He'd be fine, up until the point that Carter enlisted the relationship of the U.S. with Israel as a part of the deal. And that - that really disturbed Begin. He drew up a -finally, late in the game he realized that, you know, Egypt had presented a plan and Carter had presented the American plan, but there had been no Israeli plan. So he drew up an Israeli plan and it was just no, no, no. And his advisers - Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman and Aharon Barak - all pleaded with him not to present it. But he didn't really have a position. He didn't want to agree to any of the terms that Carter was putting forward. But finally, he began to realize he was going to have to agree to something in order to preserve the relationship with the United States. Carter told him that if he left Camp David, he was going to make sure he, Carter, that the American people knew who was to blame. And he was going to go to Congress and lay it on them. He even told one of his...
GROSS: Who was to blame for the collapse of the peace talks?
WRIGHT: That Begin was to blame personally for it. And one of his speechwriters was told to draw up a speech. And what Carter was going to ask the Israeli people to overthrow their government, you know, through a vote. But imagine just - you can't believe how that would be received in Israel or, you know, even in the Congress of the United States. But things had gotten so personal at that point. And Carter believed so strongly that peace was worth it, but he was about to blow everything to smithereens. If either one of these men walked out, they were going to pay a price, and he wanted to make sure they knew it.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin and Sadat At Camp David." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lawrence Wright. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about the history of al-Qaida called "The Looming Tower" and was nominated for a National Book Award for his book "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, And The Prison Of Belief."
His new book, "Thirteen Days In September," is about how President Jimmy Carter negotiated a peace agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. One of the biggest issues on the table was Sinai, which Israel had occupied and built settlements in after defeating Egypt in the 1967 war. The occupation led to further fighting between Israel and Egypt.
What was the leverage that Carter used to convince the Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, to give back Sinai to Egypt, which Begin was very reluctant to do?
WRIGHT: Well, Begin had made a pledge that he was going to retire and die in one of those settlements. And...
GROSS: One of the settlements in Sinai?
WRIGHT: In Sinai. And he also, you know - at the time, Israelis - you know, many people in Israel were worried about surrendering Sinai because it was their safety zone. It protected them from the Egyptian Army. What finally happened in Sinai, Begin's own delegation was far more in favor of making a peace settlement at Camp David than Begin himself was. And the language he used with Carter was that, I would never personally recommend that the settlements be abandoned.
Carter eventually thought about those words and then later asked Begin, is there a way in which you could, you know, offer this to a vote in the Knesset, in the Israeli parliament? And Begin agreed that that was not impossible. So finally it was agreed that this would be taken to a vote in the Knesset, and Begin would not stand against it. And that way, he did not have to personally recommend it, and he also didn't break his pledge. So, you know, he was a man who considered his honor to be sacrosanct. And so this was a way of getting around a pledge that he had made publicly.
GROSS: And he didn't have to bear complete responsibility...
GROSS: ...For, you know, giving up Sinai. What did Egypt give up in this deal?
WRIGHT: Well, what Egypt's problem was when they came into Camp David was negotiating with Israel alone. This was going to - if they could not get a comprehensive agreement that included the Palestinians, everybody in the delegation knew that Egypt would be alone in the Arab world, that the Arabs would turn their back on them.
And so what Sadat wanted was language that specifically linked the peace between Israel and Egypt with an agreement with the Palestinians. And that link was, you know, weakened. And eventually, he signed an agreement that was broken into two parts. One was the accord with Israel, in which Israel agreed to return the Sinai to Egypt and that the peninsula would be demilitarized. And the other part was the framework for the peace with the Palestinians, which was a notional idea that Israel would, within five years, resolve a peace with the Palestinians along the lines of - that are laid out in those accords.
GROSS: And why did Carter do it that way, to break it into two parts like that - one, peace between Egypt and Israel, and the other, that in five years there'd be, you know, movement toward autonomy...
WRIGHT: There you go. Right.
GROSS: ...Was that the word that was used? - autonomy for the Palestinians?
WRIGHT: There was no other way for him to get the agreement with Israel, and, you know, he thought that if - he didn't want to break it into two parts. He didn't want - he wanted a comprehensive peace as Sadat said he wanted as well. But it became very clear that it was not going to happen like that. And he had to get something out of Camp David. So he made arrangements for the, you know, first part of the accord with Egypt. And then he linked it as strongly as he could with this accord in which Israel pledged to resolve its differences with the Palestinians within a period of five years and laid out a roadmap to how that would be done.
Every attempt since Camp David to resolve the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians has essentially followed that roadmap - tried to implement it, but has never been done to this day.
GROSS: If you just joining us, my guest is journalist Lawrence Wright. His new book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David." And it's about the Camp David peace negotiations in which President Carter oversaw a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright. He wrote a history of al-Qaida which won a Pulitzer Prize. It was called "The Looming Tower." He wrote a history of Scientology. Now he's written a new book about the Camp David peace accords and the history of the Middle East that provides a context for them. These are the accords that President Carter oversaw in which a peace between Israel and Egypt was negotiated. The book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David."
One of the points that was, you know, argued over in discussing the Palestinians and Israel's occupation of the West Bank was U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which of course is still an incredible sticking point in Middle East peace. So please describe what that is.
WRIGHT: After the 1967 war, there was this Resolution 242, which Israel signed, in which Israel agreed to withdraw from territories occupied by war. Even during the time that they were framing this resolution, the language was very carefully thought-over. And so it doesn't say - originally, they say all the territories. And then the word all was subtracted, and then the word the was subtracted, so it became territories, which - so Israel would withdraw from territories occupied by war, which permitted the Israelis to say, well, it doesn't say all the territories. And Begin argued that it didn't apply at all, that it was only in the case of a belligerent war, you know - in the case of a belligerent war, it didn't apply. And...
GROSS: So in other words, since Israel was defending itself and then ended up winning, it was able to take the land. It's not like it started a war to conquer land.
GROSS: That was the argument that Begin was using, right?
WRIGHT: That was - even though 242 is specifically about the land that Israel occupied after the 1967 war. So this is an example of what people call, in diplomacy, creative ambiguity. It allowed Israel to sign that document, but it created an area of confusion that came back to haunt the diplomats who were at Camp David when they tried to resolve what that 242 actually meant.
And Begin was taking a very hard line. And he didn't want to surrender any of the land, but Sinai was in a somewhat different view in his mind because he didn't really think of Sinai as the promised land. That, you know - far as West Bank - that was Judea and Samaria - in his opinion, that is the heart of ancient Israel, and he was not going to let any of that go.
GROSS: So how did Carter come up with something resembling a resolution that enabled Begin to sign the second document, the one applying to the West Bank?
WRIGHT: You know, there was a - he had a 23 drafts of the American proposal. And he kept putting in language from U.N. Resolution 242, referring to it in the text. And Begin always bridled at this. And finally, one night, Carter came up with the idea that he would reference 242 without actually quoting it in the text and then put the entire resolution in the appendix to the accord. And even though it's a part of the accord, just removing that language from the opening text of the accord put Begin at ease, and he was willing to sign it.
GROSS: So what Carter did is refer to people who were referring to Resolution 242. So he'd say, as they said. And they were quoting what Resolution 242 was, but he's not quoting it in the plan itself.
WRIGHT: It is a part of the plan, but it's in the appendix.
WRIGHT: So it's still a part of the treaty. And it's sort of a face-saving device. Begin was, you know - he was so interested in every detail of the language. And at the very beginning of Camp David, Rosalynn Carter had gone to some interfaith leaders and come up with a prayer that she hoped that people would - people of all countries would pray for success. And she said to Prime Minister Begin, I hope that is OK with you, and he said, well, I'd like to see the text. So...
WRIGHT: ...He took Rosalynn's prayer and made some amendments to it. And so from the very beginning, there was a sense that every single word was going to be examined and scrutinized and the - Aharon Barak, who was the supreme court justice from Israel who was one of the major negotiators at Camp David, he seemed to have a genius for figuring out ways to ameliorate the language and still say what needs to be said in a way that Begin would accept. And Carter came to rely upon him.
Even - there was one instance where there was the term, legitimate right to the Palestinian people. Now, this was something that caused Begin to flare up because, you know, he said, what are legitimate rights? Is there such a thing as illegitimate rights? You know, this is, you know, a tautology. And, well, we could just say - we could just say the right to the Palestinian people. And he still was very anxious about conceding that the Palestinian people had rights. And finally, Judge Barak suggested inserting the word also, so that the accord say, and also the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. It doesn't mean anything except that it opened the door that there were other considerations which, you know, where in the back of Begin's mind, but not made public in this document.
GROSS: President Carter seemed to think that the part of the Camp David peace agreement pertaining to the Palestinians would specify that Israel would no longer build new settlements in the West Bank. Prime Minister Begin did not seem to think that. So what went wrong at the last minute with - that left Carter feeling betrayed by Begin?
WRIGHT: This is a dispute that continues to this day. It was late at night on the final night - Saturday night. Everybody was tired. In the Israeli delegation, there was Begin and Moshe Dayan and Aharon Barak. And it was Carter and his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. And Carter believed that Begin agreed to stop settlement-building for a period of five years until the Palestinian portion of the accords had been concluded. And he asked Begin to produce a letter to that effect and would produce that tomorrow, and tomorrow was going to be the day that they went to the White House to sign the accords. So then everybody went to bed.
The next day, Aharon Barak brought Carter the letter. And it didn't say at all what Carter had asked for. He said that he would consider it, and it would be for a period of three months. Carter told Barak, go back and rewrite the letter. And so the next night, they went to the White House and signed the accords. And it did not have the letter from Begin that he expected in hand. And in fact, he never did get it.
Begin said he never agreed to withholding settlement-building for such a long period of time. He had only agreed to consider it. Barak had notes of the meeting, which he says prove Begin's point. Although, the notes seem to suggest that there's a lot of confusion at that point. Both Carter and Vance have very clear memories that Begin did make this pledge. But in any case, it never happened.
Shortly after Begin returned to Israel, settlement-building resumed and of course has never really stopped for any substantial period of time. It would be interesting to imagine if Begin had suggested that he would withhold settlement-building up until the point that the accord with the Palestinians was finalized how that might have shaped politics in the Middle East up to this moment.
GROSS: The Camp David Accords are so interesting to read about, and there's so much we're not going to have time to talk about. So I refer our listeners to your book to get a much more complete picture than we could possibly give during the course of one program on FRESH AIR. And I ask our listeners' forgiveness for all the stuff that we're leaving out. But there's still more I want to talk with you about. And we will do that after a break. My guest is Lawrence Wright, and his new book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright. And he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book about the history of al-Qaida called "The Looming Tower." He wrote an excellent history of Scientology, which is called "Going Clear." And now he has a book about the Camp David Accords, the peace plan that was signed between Egypt and Israel brokered by President Carter. The new book is called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David."
We always talk about the unintended consequences of war. But in this case, there's unintended consequences of the peace between Egypt and Israel. You quote in your book Mohammed Kamel, who was part of the Egyptian delegation...
GROSS: ...To the peace talks. And this is something he told to Cyrus Vance. I'd like you to read the quote.
WRIGHT: This is at the end of the conference and Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel resigned - he's a foreign minister - in protest at Camp David. And he told Vance (reading) you have drafted your project in accordance with was whatever was accepted or rejected by Begin, he said bitterly. You will live to regret this agreement which will weaken Sadat and may even topple him. It will affect your position in the moderate Arab states, who are your friends, while all the Arab peoples will resent you. As for Egypt, it will be isolated in the area. All that will happen is that it will allow Begin a free hand in the West Bank and Gaza with a view to their annexation. Far from providing a solution to the Arab-Israeli dispute, the agreement will only add fuel to the fire.
GROSS: And a lot of his predictions came true.
WRIGHT: Yes, and unfortunately, you know, many people in the Israeli - many people in the Egyptian delegation refused to attend the signing ceremony, not only because they didn't agree with it, they were afraid for their lives. They worried that when they went back to Egypt, they'd be hounded and threatened. And of course, in the case of Sadat, that was true. When he signed those accords, he essentially signed his death warrant.
GROSS: It's interesting how after the peace talks, how authoritarian Sadat became or how more authoritarian he became in Egypt during his reelection campaign. People were banned from discussing the peace talks. He imprisoned a lot of his opposition. He imprisoned about 3,000 people for political reasons.
And I'm wondering what President Carter thought about that. He thought of Sadat at being, like, one of his closest allies, as being, like, a dear friend. They - you know, Carter and Sadat succeeded together in finally, you know, working out peace between Israel and Egypt. And then Sadat becomes more authoritarian. Did Carter have any comment about that, do you know?
WRIGHT: Not to me. I think, you know, with Sadat, Carter always felt he could work with Sadat. And it's always easier to work with an autocrat because he doesn't have to ask for anybody's advice or counsel. Carter had so much trouble working with Begin. But when Begin submitted the vote to the Knesset, Carter went, and he was subjected - he watched Begin being subjected to the really vitriolic behavior of the Knesset, which is so characteristic in - of Israeli politics. And he came to appreciate the difficulty that Begin had in acting as a leader of the Israeli people. That was a difficulty Sadat simply didn't have. He abrogated to himself all of the power.
GROSS: So Sadat ends up being assassinated. Is that directly connected to the peace talks?
WRIGHT: Yes. There is no question that, you know, making peace with Israel was the first of the charges against him. There were other things, you know. He was much more in favor of women's rights. He was married to a very powerful woman, and he was opposed to the hijab, the Islamic covering that many pious Muslim women wear today.
But, you know, when I lived in Cairo, which was back in the day when Nasser died and Sadat became president, the hijab was not that common. None of my students - none of my female students wore hijab. But it was beginning to become a sign of the Islamization of the country, and Sadat decried it. And it's ironic because he, himself, he represented himself as the most pious man. The first man of Islam is what he called himself. And he freed the Muslim Brothers that Nasser had imprisoned and had no idea the currents that were stirring in his country towards radicalism. Much of it had been burst into flames because the 1967 war and then the peace treaty with Israel.
GROSS: And I didn't know this, but there was a plot to bomb his funeral...
GROSS: ...Which might have even killed President Carter and former prime minister, by that point, Menachem Begin, because they attended the funeral. And the plot - one of the masterminds of this plot was Ayman al-Zawahiri who became the number two and then the number one in al-Qaida.
WRIGHT: Right. Yeah, Zawahiri was implicated in the plot to kill Sadat. But before he was arrested, he was meeting with other members of this Islamist underground that he was a part of. And their idea was that they were going to bomb the parade of dignitaries that were coming to Cairo for the funeral. And the Egyptian police broke up the plot, and they captured Zawahiri as he was on his way to the airport and put him in prison for a couple of years. But, yeah, had that succeeded, you know, all three men would've been killed.
GROSS: So the peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted so far, nearly 35 years. So much has changed in the Middle East, especially since the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood controlled the government for a while. Now it's like a military dictatorship.
GROSS: Do you think that the peace is endangered?
WRIGHT: No, not that part of it. Egypt and Israel have rarely been closer. They are, you know - the views towards the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood are identical. Even Egypt has cooperated in shutting off Hamas in Gaza. I think there's a coalition of - there's a consensus of opinion right now between the leadership of Egypt and the Israelis that hasn't been present for a long time. And it wouldn't be possible without this peace treaty.
GROSS: Well, Lawrence Wright, I want to thank you very much for talking with us. And it's really good to talk with you again.
WRIGHT: Well, thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright is the author of the new book "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.