'13 Days In September' Examines 1978 Camp David Accords
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Over the weekend, a new Israeli ambassador presented his credentials to the president of Egypt. What sounds like a minor diplomatic exchange actually represents a major legacy of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel brokered in 1978.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
That was the year President Jimmy Carter brought together Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat at the leafy, Maryland retreat known as Camp David. The goal was to end the ricochet of bloody conflicts between Israel and its most powerful Arab neighbor.
CORNISH: The talks concluded with Israel agreeing to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt ending its economic boycott of Israel. In a new book called "Thirteen Days In September," author Lawrence Wright takes us into the late-night policy squabbles, chess games and tense dinners that brought about the Camp David Accords. Wright also delves into the often-overlooked role faith played for each leader - Sadat a Muslim, Menachem Begin an observant Jew, and Carter a Christian.
LAWRENCE WRIGHT: These were three very religious men, and they had come together to solve a problem that religion itself had largely caused. There wouldn't have been a Camp David if Jimmy Carter didn't believe that God had placed him in office in part to bring peace to the holy land. It's kind of amazing to think about this one-term governor of Georgia who had very little experience in the whole world, but especially in the Middle East, having the presumption that he could bring peace to a region that seems so hostile to it.
Sadat felt and said that God had placed on his shoulders the responsibility for leading his people to peace, and certainly Begin felt that, you know, he was a man who's lost his family in the Holocaust and his whole career had been about creating a safe haven for Jews. So each of these men had these profound religious feelings and obligations, and I think they each saw themselves in a prophetic tradition.
CORNISH: Was it a fluke? I mean, you describe the basic ingredients for this being a bold Egyptian leader willing to talk, an imaginative Israeli leader willing to listen and a tireless U.S. diplomacy willing to press them. I mean, when you look at the most recent round of peace talks, say in April, you don't see any of these elements today.
WRIGHT: The recent talks did not place America's prestige on the line, and I think that America has a stake in gaining peace in the Middle East. The whole world does, but I think in particular we do. And we are always paying the price for not having resolved that settlement. It's not entirely in our hands. Obviously you can't force people to make peace, but I think in this particular round that we just finished, we could have gone further than we did.
CORNISH: You mention the political price that Egypt paid in the aftermath of this, and of course Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. One of the co-conspirators arrested in the sweep of jihadist militants after was a future leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri. What role do you see these talks as, in a way, contributing to or fueling the kind of radical Muslim extremist movements that - even that we see today?
WRIGHT: Sadat, in many ways when he signed the Camp David Accords, signed his death warrant, and it was ironic. You know, I was living in Egypt when Sadat became president, and he represented himself as the most pious man. He called himself the first man of Islam, and he set free many of the Muslim Brothers that Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the president of Egypt before Sadat, had imprisoned.
So it was quite bitter irony that it was the same people that would kill him, and yet he understood how dangerous the extreme, radical movement of Islam inside Egypt had become. And he forcefully addressed it, but he had a - I think, a certain kind of naivete or maybe fatalism that he would survive it. And the truth is that he had unleashed forces in his country that he couldn't control.
CORNISH: I'm speaking with author Lawrence Wright. His new book is called "Thirteen Days In September" about the Camp David Peace Accords of 1978. Lawrence Wright, in the end for you, what lessons do you feel that the Camp David Accords actually have for us today?
WRIGHT: Well, there are two that really jump out at me. One is the idea that there are perfect partners for peace. We're constantly hearing the refrain that there are no partners, and here was Menachem Begin, who had fought the British and the Palestinians, and Anwar Sadat, who was a political assassin and a Nazi sympathizer. And then you had Jimmy Carter, who was a failing president. You could not imagine a less-likely cast of characters who could bring peace to their region, but they managed to accomplish it.
And another lesson is, you know, we're constantly hearing about timing - that maybe the time is not right. But when Carter convened the Camp David Conference, Israel was very reluctant to give up the Sinai. They'd just been shaken by Sadat's attack in 1973, and Sadat was also in a position where he was having to risk the standing of his country negotiating with an enemy that no Arab would agree to talk to. So the timing was, in some respects, worse than it is now. I think if we could eliminate these two tropes from our thinking - that we need perfect partners, and we have to wait for the timing to be right - then we might be able to make some more progress in trying to bring - to enlarge the peace in this region.
CORNISH: It feels like faith and religion and where it intersects with culture is a theme that runs through your work, I mean, whether it's "The Looming Tower" in al-Qaida militants or even, you know, Scientology...
CORNISH: ..."Going Clear." Are you religious? And, I mean, what draws you to this part of life?
WRIGHT: I used to be a very religious teenager in Dallas, and I lost that faith. But I never lost the feeling that faith can be transformative in people's lives for good and ill. So I've come to appreciate that faith is a driving force in not just individual lives, but in societies. And I don't think that as reporters we often take that into account as much as we should.
It's striking to me that you can hold, for instance, very strong political views that may not affect your behavior at all, but it's very likely that if you have powerful, religious views, that they will dictate the way that you live your life. So in comparison, I think that we should be paying much more attention to what people believe in their religion rather than what political views they adopt.
CORNISH: Lawrence Wright, thanks so much.
WRIGHT: It's a pleasure. Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: Lawrence Wright, his book is out today. It's called "Thirteen Days In September: Carter, Begin, And Sadat At Camp David."
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