Give Peace a Chance

Peace is really hard. It’s kind of miserable, in a way. There’s a kind of unsatisfied portion of the human spirit that wants to have a clean victory. But if you’re a student of war in the Middle East, the conclusion you have to draw is that one war just prepares the ground for the next…

Lawrence Wright in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, October 2014.

Would you raise your kid to be a diplomat after reading Lawrence Wright’s almost minute-by-minute roller-coaster ride through Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David?

In the late-night impromptu dialogs, the play of character, mood and role reversals, in the petty bickering and grand stakes — it’s small wonder that Wright wrote this story first as a stage play. He is re-hatching the only (and unviolated) peace treaty between Israelis and Arabs, “one of the great diplomatic triumphs of the twentieth century.” And yet the ironies are as thick as the personal drama of three desperate men in a Maryland hideaway — two ex-terrorists: Menachem Begin, “who embodied the most wounded and aggressive qualities of the Israeli people,” and Anwar Sadat, the handsome narcissist who cast himself as the savior of his own neglected, humiliated Egyptians; and their host, the unpopular populist and detail-freak Jimmy Carter, who was sure that God wanted him to bring peace to the Holy Land.

Two years after Camp David, Carter was defeated for re-election. Three years later Sadat was assassinated. Four years later, Begin’s over-reaching in an invasion of Lebanon drove him out of politics, into miserable isolation to his death.

A “crucial mistake,” as Wright calls it, blights the good feeling that won Nobel peace prizes for Begin and Sadat, because Palestine got left out of the Camp David deal, and not quite inadvertently. “Either through misunderstanding or deceit or sober second thoughts,” in the Wright telling, “Begin did not produce the letter on halting settlement construction that Carter thought he had agreed to.” As a result, through nearly 40 years now, Israeli settlement of Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank has kept expanding, from about 50,000 at the time of Camp David to nearly 500,000 today.

So we are talking here about a decidedly qualified triumph that makes the decidedly human strivers more remarkable and their thirteen days more wonderful. No matter the flaws and frustrations of Camp David, one wants to shout “encore” to the principals and the spirit that drove them.

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