Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright


Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

Recommendation from: Maphead’s Book Blog

A few years ago, I read Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology called Going Clear. I was impressed by his writing and research, and later took the opportunity to see him speak at the National Book Festival in 2015. At the Festival, he focused his talk on his most recent book, Thirteen Days in September which is about the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement struck between Egypt and Israel. This pushed up the book in my priority for reading (I had already had it on my to-read list from Maphead’s Book Blog – see link above).

In Thirteen Days in September, Wright provides details of what happened in the nearly two weeks that led up to the agreement, as well as historical context for the agreement. He provides profiles of the three very different men at the center of the negotiations (U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin) as well as for members from their respective delegations.

Though the book may sound like it has a narrow focus chronologically, Thirteen Days in September in effect covers the whole sweep of the Middle East conflict from the 1940’s to the present-day. Begin and Sadat’s experience during World War II shaped who they would become as political leaders. For example, Begin’s family and community were all killed during the Holocaust, and this horrific tragedy was a motivating force behind his extreme, uncompromising stances when it came to Israel.

Egypt and Israel had been engaged in war and hostilities with each other since 1948, but it was a drain on both of their countries’ resources. Carter hoped that by sequestering the two leaders and their delegations at Camp David (the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland), a peace might be struck between the two countries. All three leaders were risking their political careers to be there, and there were many times during the thirteen days that either Israel or Egypt’s delegation were on the verge of calling it quits. The U.S. delegation team ended up drafting a peace agreement that was then painstakingly modified based on feedback from either side. Names and wording had deep significance for all those involved, and creative solutions had to be made. (For example, slightly different wording in the Hebrew translation of the agreement compared to the English-language version.)

In the end, a historic and lasting peace was made between Egypt and Israel, and Begin and Sadat were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in it. (Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize many years later for different work and the Nobel committee acknowledged then that he should have received it earlier for his work on the Camp David Accords.) As historic as the agreement was, unfortunately the fate of the Palestinians was not resolved by the agreement. Based on the information in this book, this failure seems to lie mostly at the feet of Begin, who backtracked on part of the Accords soon after the meeting at Camp David. The lack of resolution for the Palestinians is a problem that continues to prevent peace in the Middle East to this day.

I found the passages about the Palestinians very helpful as a frame for understanding where we are presently in the Middle East conflict:

Arab refugees flooded into neighboring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilizing presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the whole world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The last phrase “the sacrifices that peace would entail” really caught my eye. I feel like public discourse is more used to discussing the sacrifices of war (the loss of human lives) than the sacrifices required for peace (e.g. the loss of power).

And this quote also connects the Camp David Accords to where we are today:

In signing the treaty with Israel, Egypt severed its link to the Palestinian cause. Without a powerful Arab champion, 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.

In addition to being highly informative and well-researched, Thirteen Days in September is written in a very engaging style, capturing the high-stakes drama of diplomacy. If you have an interest in this topic, or are a fan of Lawrence Wright’s previous books, I highly recommend reading Thirteen Days in September. Reading this book at the end of December proved very timely, as the United States had just controversially abstained from using its veto to stop a U.N. resolution condemning the continued building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. I was able to follow this news story with increased understanding thanks to this book.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Alan Chong (2/25/15 review from Goodreads) – “Lawrence Wright turns what sounds like a snore fest – the story behind an ultimately failed accord – and turns it into a political thriller, filled with intrigue, deeply compelling characters, and a rich, violent history that stretches deep into the mythologies of three religions. This is deeply interesting stuff, giving me a new respect for Carter, and a complex look into the deeply flawed characters of Sadat and Begin.

Christian (1/16/15 review from Goodreads) – ““Thirteen Days in September” is a blow-by-blow behind the scenes account of what happened during the negotiations. All the research he did was truly amazing. The conversations between all the leaders were told. Many were based on interviews with leaders who took part in the combative negotiations. He got a lot of reliable information on what happened through a variety of sources.

John DiConsiglio (10/12/15 review on Goodreads) – “It doesn’t hit the heights of Wright’s masterpieces, Looming Tower & Going Clear. Sometimes feels cluttered & wonkish. Mideast-lite perhaps, but still a page-turner.


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4 responses to “Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

  1. Glad I’m not the only one who enjoyed this book! It ended up making my year end bet of list. Here’s a link to my review:

  2. Pingback: 2017 in Reading: Nonfiction | A Good Stopping Point

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