The clip above is quite remarkable. In September 1978, President Jimmy Carter of the United States, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel emerged after an unexpected 13 days of negotiating at Camp David with a peace accord that still lasts. After fighting several wars, Egypt and Israel went into the talks as enemies but ended them perhaps not as friends but as partners in peace. It’s quite touching to see the former enemies applauding and saluting each other, with Carter as a proud intermediary. But the press conference doesn’t tell the whole story. We finally got it last year, in the shape of a book and a stage play.
This Fox News Sunday clip introduces us to the play, “Camp David”, and its star Richard Thomas who plays President Carter (Ron Rifkin of Alias fame plays Begin). As we can see, Carter himself and his wife Rosalynn attended the premiere. It’s not a long play, only 90-100 minutes long, and the reviews have been so-so. Not having seen the play I can only assume that some critics were simply intrigued by the premise, but thought the play itself had some difficulty living up to this historic moment.
This is not a problem in “Thirteen Days in September”, a book by Lawrence Wright. He also wrote the play, but this book has to be the ultimate story of the 1978 Camp David Accords. In it, Wright captures all of the drama – the sweat, tricks, wrangling and heartache of the negotiations – in riveting fashion. There’s Carter’s journey, a rollercoaster ride featuring optimism, followed by defeat, followed by triumph. There’s Sadat, willing to have peace at a cheaper cost than his delegation is willing to pay. And there’s Begin, intransigent to the very end, even though his delegation (especially Moshe Dayan, the larger-than-life foreign minister) tries to make him see reason. Interwoven with the thrilling intrigue at Camp David (which begins to resemble a fancy forestry prison to everyone involved after a few agonizing days) are flashbacks to each leader’s past that provide clues to how they function. Especially interesting is what Begin and Sadat have in common, two former terrorists with plenty of blood on their hands, united in their past hatred of British rule of both Egypt and what was to become Israel. This is a great book, written like a thriller, with incisive portraits of its “characters”, not only the three leads but various interesting figures within the two delegations.
What can we learn from the Camp David Accords now, 37 years later? Well, plenty. First of all, they were an enduring success in the way that they provided a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. It was the signature achievement of the Carter presidency, one that launched him on a successful post-presidential career as international peacemaker and negotiator. There were many problems associated with the treaty though. Sadat was perceived as a traitor by his Arab allies and was assassinated by radicals in 1981 (as seen in the TV documentary above). Begin launched the 1982 Lebanon War; the disastrous handling of it, along with his wife’s death and the increasingly fragile economy of Israel sent Begin into a depression and his resignation in 1983. The issue of what’s to become of the Palestinians, which was also discussed at Camp David without any real progress, remains an open wound.
Israel and Egypt are still at peace. A few days ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was reelected as Prime Minister of Israel for a fourth term, which makes him one of the nation’s most successful leaders. He’s a complicated man. Reviled by many governments abroad for his lack of interest in creating peace between Israelis and Palestinians, he embraces the only international friends he has, American conservatives, and seems willing to pay the price of losing his friendship with the current administration in Washington. Netanyahu is not a graceful man; in these past weeks he has actively undermined President Obama with his shameless appearance in the U.S. Congress, resorted to race-baiting in the days leading up to the Israeli election (watch the Daily Show clip above), and told the world that there will be no two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians as long as he’s in charge… only to walk back his statement once he was reelected. Absolutely pathetic, but then President Obama also told Netanyahu in his congratulatory phone call that the Prime Minister’s recent behavior will lead to the United States reassessing its relationship with Israel.
The Camp David Accords failed to cover the Palestinian issue properly, and it remains a hopeless one. There are countless ideas that would easily resolve the conflict. The problem is that no one with influence in Israel or Palestine is willing to fight for it. The Palestinians put their trust in terrorists and corrupt officials who have no interest in coming up with a solution that creates two independent nations, as well as a responsible government for the people. The Israelis put their trust in a man who continues to build settlements on land that doesn’t belong to Israel and frequently aligns himself with far-right, racist parties. As long as neither of these situations change, there is no peace. The irony is that Netanyahu really looks like another Begin, a man who might see reason… but Mahmoud Abbas is much too weak. In other words, the Israeli leader lacks a proper Palestinian Sadat to butt heads with at a new Camp David summit.