Camp David

Thirteen Days in September
Lawrence Wright is best known as a New Yorker journalist and author of non-fiction books, including his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower. After premiering his play Camp David in 2014, he decided to write a book about the same topic called Thirteen Days in September. We are delighted to share an excerpt of it here. These pages depict Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Israel in 1977, ten months prior to the Camp David negotiations depicted in the play.

excerpt from Thirteen Days In September by Lawrence Wright
(Prologue Pages 20-29)

The American intelligence community had scarcely noticed Anwar Sadat in his early political career. Then, he was obscured by the giant shadow of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic architect of the Egyptian revolution. When Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, Vice-President Sadat was universally seen as a placeholder until the next strongman pushed him aside. Instead, he proved to be a master of the unexpected. First, he stunned Egypt by rounding up Nasser’s corrupt cronies who controlled the main positions of government power and throwing them in jail. In 1972, he expelled 15,000 Soviet troops and military advisers from Egypt. Until that point, Egypt had been essentially a Soviet military base, its main foothold in the Middle East. There was as much puzzlement as joy in Washington, which had been caught by complete surprise.  The Israelis were convinced that without the Russians the Egyptians were incapable of waging war.  The very next year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Sadat sent his army across the Suez Canal, catching the Israelis off guard and bringing the superpowers to the point of a nuclear showdown. By then, the mercurial Egyptian leaders had become an object of obsession among American policy makers and intelligence analysts.

With all the surprises that Sadat had pulled out of his hat, none equaled the moment, on November 9, 1977, when he set aside the prepared text of a longwinded speech he was making to the Egyptian People’s Assembly and announced, “I am ready to travel to the ends of the earth if this will in any way protect an Egyptian boy, soldier, or officer from being killed or wounded….  Israel will be surprised to hear me say that I am willing to go to their parliament, the Knesset itself, and debate with them.”  Few believed it. The Egyptian parliamentarians routinely cheered; even Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, who was present as a guest, dutifully applauded. Cairo newspapers omitted the statement the next morning. Everyone thought it was an empty gesture.

Ten days later Sadat’s plane took off for Ben-Gurion Airport. He now held the world spellbound. Israel was in a state of confused delirium because of the visit. It was the first official visit in Israel’s history by any Arab leader.  Ten thousand soldiers, police, and security personnel were waiting to guard the Egyptian president,  in addition to the 2,500 foreign journalists who had flown into the country to cover the historic event.  At 8:30 pm, two hours after the end of Shabbat, searchlights picked up the white plane against the black sky, flying low and circling over Tel Aviv. Egyptian flags of red, white and black intermingled with the blue and white of Israel, even though the two countries were still in a state of war. Without sheet music for the Egyptian national anthem, the Israeli military orchestra had learned how to play it by listening to Cairo radio.  Sharpshooters were stationed on the rooftops of the terminal buildings in case terrorists suddenly emerged from the presidential plane rather than Sadat himself.  But then there he was.

Sadat’s enemies were waiting on the tarmac, and he walked among them, joking with the generals and the cabinet officers, greeting Begin and former Israeli leaders.

“Madame, I’ve waited a long time to meet you,” Sadat said, as he kissed Golda Meir.

“We’ve been expecting you,” she said.

“And now I’m here.”

He joked with Ariel Sharon, perhaps the greatest field commander in Israel’s history,  saying that the next time he crossed the canal he would have him arrested. “Oh no, sir,” Sharon replied. “Now I’m just the minister of agriculture.”

By presenting himself to Israel, Sadat was introducing two cultures to each other. Although they had been in conflict for three decades, the peoples were almost entirely unknown to each other. Few Israelis had ever met an Egyptian, except for the Jews who had emigrated from there, so the shock of having Sadat himself in their midst was compounded by curiosity and wonder. The same was true for the Egyptians watching the event on television. To see Sadat staring into the faces of the enemy – until now, figures of legend – suddenly and unsettlingly humanized the Israelis in the Egyptian mind. Sadat was convinced that seventy percent of the conflict between Israel and the Arabs was psychological.  If he could make peace seem real and available, not only to the Israelis but also to the Arabs, most of the work would be done. Then, perhaps, there would be a chance for the prosperity that Egyptians desperately needed but which wars had chronically destroyed.

Sadat’s decision to go to Israel had already torn his own government apart. Both the foreign minister and the man Sadat had appointed to succeed him had resigned, protesting that Egypt would be isolated in the Arab world. He had shattered the taboo against speaking to Israelis or even acknowledging the existence of a Jewish homeland. He compounded the insult by timing his arrival for the eve of Eid al-Adha, one of the main holy days in Islam. On that day, the king of Saudi Arabia goes to unlock the door of the Kaaba, the cubical stone building in Mecca where all Muslims direct their prayers. “I have always before gone to the Kaaba to pray for somebody, never to pray against anyone,” King Khaled said. “But on this occasion I found myself saying, ‘Oh God, grant that the airplane taking Sadat to Jerusalem may crash before it gets there, so that he may not become a scandal for all of us.’”

As the presidential motorcade climbed through the rocky hillsides toward Jerusalem, crowds along the highway sang “Hevenu Shalom Aleikhem” (We’ve Brought Peace upon You).  The Israelis had no armored limousine for Sadat, so they had borrowed one from the American ambassador.  All along the way people were openly weeping. Some wore t-shirts saying “All You Need Is Love.”  The Egyptian entourage gaped at the scene; it was like being on another planet. On the way rusted wrecks of military vehicles from Israel’s war of independence had been left on the roadside as reminders of the struggle. The motorcade came to a halt at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, which Begin’s irregulars had blown up during the British Mandate three decades before. A crowd of two hundred fifty people waited in the lobby crying out to Sadat. Across the street, the carillon at the YMCA played “Getting to Know You.”

Jerusalem – the most contested piece of property in history – was the object of longing and worship for the three great Abrahamic religions and the source of centuries of bloodshed. Israel had seized East Jerusalem ten years before in the 1967 war, thrilling Christians and Jews all over the world and throwing Muslims into despair. From their rooms, the Egyptian delegation had a magnificent view of the honeyed limestone walls of the Old City and the building cranes that rose like a giant forest around it. “All that construction!” one of the delegates said. “I fear that Jerusalem is lost to the Arabs.”  Although Sadat himself seemed serenely untouched, the intermixed feelings of anxiety, hope, and dread among the Egyptians led to great stress and confusion. One of Sadat’s bodyguards actually died of a heart attack in the hotel. His corpse was smuggled into a cargo plane to keep rumors of assassination from taking root.

The next day was the feast of Eid al-Adha, when Muslims celebrate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael – according to tradition, the progenitor of the Arabs – on the Temple Mount in the Old City. (Christians and Jews believe that Abraham’s son Isaac, father of the Jews, was the intended sacrificial victim.) Muslims call the Temple Mount Haram al-Sherif, the Noble Sanctuary. According to Jewish tradition, it is where Adam was made from its dust, where Cain killed Abel, and where God’s spirit dwells. King Solomon was said to have built the First Temple on this spot a thousand years before the birth of Jesus in order to house the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the tablets with the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The First Temple stood until 586 BCE, when the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar tore it down and herded the Jews into Babylon. Seventy years later the Jews were freed by Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, and a Second Temple was established on the same spot. King Herod expanded it into one of the largest structures in the ancient world. It was here that Jesus drove out the money-changers and the sellers of animals for sacrifice, saying “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.”  The Temple was sacked once again in 70 CE, by the Romans, following the Jewish revolt against the empire.

In 1099, the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem and killed everybody in town. Jews were rounded up and slaughtered in their synagogues. One witness describes Christian knights riding through a lake of blood after slaying ten thousand Muslims who had taken refuge on the Temple Mount.  Control of the city passed back and forth between the religious warriors, until the twelfth century, when Saladin peacefully recaptured the city and allowed each religion the right to worship in its holy places – an example that would prove difficult for his successors to follow. The Ottomans seized Jerusalem in 1517, and maintained control for four hundred years, until the British expelled the Turks and their German advisers at the end of the First World War. By that time, Jerusalem had been reduced to a pestilential town of 55,000 starving souls, overrun with prostitutes and venereal diseases. Conscious of the precedent, the victorious general, Sir Edmund Allenby, entered the city on foot, rather than in a martial display. As he received the keys to the city, Allenby declared, “The Crusades have now ended.”  But even then, the British and the French were carving up the Ottoman Empire among themselves. At this imperial feast, the Zionist campaign in Europe succeeded in getting the support of the British to gain a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. A bloody new era was born.

Two mosques now stood atop the place where the Jewish Temple once had been. Stalked by television cameras and helicopters, Sadat entered the silver-domed Al-Aqsa for dawn prayers. His presence in this sacred space sent electrifying currents throughout the Muslim world, alternately of hope and betrayal. On the one hand, the loss of Jerusalem was symbolically greater than that of Sinai and the entire West Bank, and the fact that its future was once again on the bargaining table was almost unbearably thrilling; on the other hand, the mere fact that Sadat was dealing with the occupiers stoked fear and paranoia. This was the same mosque where, in 1951, a Palestinian tailor assassinated King Abdullah I of Jordan because he had dared to negotiate with the Israelis. The bullet holes were still evident in the alabaster columns. As Sadat worshipped, Palestinian protesters outside the mosque loudly denounced him for the same crime.

Sadat moved on to the seventh-century Dome of the Rock, the oldest building in Islam, a magnificent eight-sided structure with ornate porcelain mosaics and a golden cupola that dominates the Old City. It is a resonant icon of Islamic spirituality as well as the ubiquitous political emblem of the Palestinians’ yearning for restitution. The shrine encloses the rocky outcropping that is the summit of the mount. According to Jewish tradition, the stone is the perch that God made for himself when he created the universe. Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad made his night journey to heaven atop his steed, al-Buraq, from this rock. At the end of days, according to Islamic tradition, the Final Judgment will take place in this sanctuary, with the blessed and the damned going their separate ways for eternity.

Sadat made his way into the Old City at the base of the Temple Mount, stopping at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A monk showed him the stone where the body of crucified Jesus was said to have been washed and the tomb where he was buried. Outside, demonstrators were beginning to break through the ranks of security. “Sadat, traitor!” Palestinians cried as he left. “Go back to Egypt and take your dogs with you.”

Afterwards, Sadat laid a wreath at a memorial for Israeli soldiers killed in all the wars since the founding of the State. Then he joined Begin at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Sadat was handed a skullcap. “It’s a kippah,” Begin explained. “It’s our custom to cover our heads during prayers or when entering a house of prayer.” 

Sadat silently moved through the somber memorial, with the tools of genocide starkly displayed. There was the gate to Auschwitz, with its grotesquely ironic motto, Arbeit macht frei (work makes you free), through which more than a million Jews passed on their way to death. The Hall of Names contained brief biographies of two million of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In the middle of the room there is a great cone filled inside with images of the victims; it rises skyward like the smokestacks of the death camps. “All this befell us because we had no state of our own,” Begin told Sadat.

Begin’s own parents, Ze’ev Dov and Chasia, and his older brother, Herzl, were among the names in this grim repository. On July 22, 1942, while Menachem was in hiding in Lithuania, the Nazis captured his hometown of Brisk and began their systematic annihilation of all Polish Jews. Ze’ev Dov had been attempting to emigrate to Palestine, but Chasia was in the hospital with pneumonia. The Germans murdered her in her bed, along with the other patients. Five thousand Jews from Brisk, including Ze’ev Dov and Herzl, were rounded up. Some were shot and thrown into a pit; Ze’ev Dov was weighted down with rocks and drowned in the River Bug.  Menachem learned that his father’s final words were to curse his executioners: “A day of retribution will come upon you too!”

“May God guide our steps toward peace,” Sadat wrote in the guest book “Let us put an end to all the suffering for mankind.”

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Sadat, master of the bold gesture, was indifferent to trifling details, but his confounded Israeli hosts were obsessed with the fine print. What did Sadat want in exchange for this stunning overture? Does he expect Sinai? Some concession on the West Bank or Gaza? They kept trying to pin Sadat down, but he was maddeningly evasive. “We have to concentrate on the heart of the issue, not on technicalities and formalities,” he declared.  He wanted to arrive at an “agreed program”  – a statement of principles in which Israel would pledge to withdraw from the occupied territories and come to a solution on the Palestinian question. But exactly what did that mean? All the occupied territories, or was that negotiable? What “solution” was there to the plight of the Palestinians? “Every side wants to deal with details,” Begin insisted, “not only general declarations.” The Israelis were so busy trying to read the nuances of Sadat’s language that they were blind to the fact that Sadat’s presence in Jerusalem was the message itself.

Part of the Israeli dilemma was that they had never really confronted what they themselves wanted. Perpetual conflict had pushed the issue of permanent borders into some distant future, but the rude prospect of actual peace demanded immediate choices. What was peace worth to them? Swollen with territories seized in 1948 and 1967, Israel now stretched all the way from the hills of southern Lebanon to the Red Sea, and from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean. All this space provided strategic depth, something Israel never had before. Sinai had been a historic concourse for attacking armies; the Golan Heights had been the dominating redoubt for Syrian artillery; the West Bank was a hideout for terrorists. Why surrender any of it? Would peace replace the security that Israel gained from having these territories under military control?

There was also something deeply appealing about the largeness of the space the occupation afforded; aesthetically, Israel looked properly filled out. Before occupying the West Bank, the country had appeared almost bitten in half. The little fishing village of Sharm el-Sheikh, strategically located at the southernmost tip of the peninsula at the juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, had been turned into an Israeli resort town, with classy hotels and dive shops. Radio stations in Tel Aviv regularly gave weather reports for the Red Sea beaches. Israelis had settled into a comfortable feeling of ownership over all this real estate, even if the threat of war never quite disappeared. Moreover, Sinai had oil, which resource-poor Israel was helping itself to. And finally, there was the issue of Jerusalem, the object and focus of Jewish prayers for millennia. Was peace really worth surrendering any of these precious properties?

After lunch, Sadat journeyed to the Knesset to make his speech. The eerie and unprecedented moment of his entrance was heralded by bugle calls. For the first time in the institution’s history, members of the Knesset were permitted to applaud – although not everyone did.  There was a psychological wall that remained between them, and it was that wall that Sadat meant to obliterate by his presence in the enemy’s capital. Even his bitterest foes recognized that, just by being here, Sadat had placed his life dangerously on the line. He had made it harder for the two peoples to hate each other, and the loss of that luxurious emotion on both sides stirred up feelings of murderous rage against him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, there are moments in the life of nations and peoples when it is incumbent on those known for their wisdom and clarity of vision to overlook the past, with all it complexities and weighing memories, in a bold drive towards new horizons,” Sadat began. He spoke words that no Arab leader had ever said before – words many in the audience never imagined they would hear. “You want to live with us in this part of the world. In all sincerity, I tell you, we welcome you among us, with full security and safety,” Sadat declared. “We used to reject you,” he admitted. “We had our reasons and our claims, yes. We used to brand you as ‘so-called’ Israel, yes. We were together in international conferences and organizations and our representatives did not, and still do not, exchange greetings, yes. This has happened and is still happening.”

Then his tone sharpened. “Frankness makes it incumbent upon me to tell you the following,” he said. “I have not come here for a separate agreement between Egypt and Israel.” Many in the room, including Begin, hoped to set the Palestinian issue aside; in fact, Sadat himself had occasionally seemed ambivalent on the subject, but now he was adamant. “Let me tell you without the slightest hesitation that I have not come to you under this dome to make a request that your troops evacuate the occupied territories. Complete withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied after 1967 is a logical and undisputed necessity. Nobody should plead for that.” He went on: “Peace cannot be worth its name unless it is based on justice, and not on the occupation of the land of others. It would not be appropriate for you to demand for yourselves what you deny others…. You have to give up, once and for all, the dreams of conquests, and give up the belief that force is the best method for dealing with the Arabs.”

Sadat promised that Israel could live safely and securely among her Arab neighbors, under certain conditions. “Any talk about permanent peace based on justice, and any move to ensure our coexistence in peace and security in this part of the world, would become meaningless, while you occupy Arab territories by force of arms,” he said, adding: “We insist on complete withdrawal from these territories, including Arab Jerusalem.”

The mood in the Knesset, which had been so buoyant, quickly deflated. The parliamentarians settled in for what now seemed very familiar Arab demands, although no other leader had ever offered real peace in the bargain. “It is no use to refrain from recognizing the Palestinian people and their rights to statehood and rights of return,” Sadat continued, mopping his gleaming forehead in the stiflingly hot room. “If you have found the legal and moral justification to set up a national home on a land that did not all belong to you, it is incumbent upon you to show understanding of the insistence of the people of Palestine on establishing, once again, a state on their land.” Ezer Weizman, the minister of defense, scribbled a note: “We have to prepare for war.”  Begin took it and nodded.

It was a strange performance. When has it ever happened that the defeated party – defeated in four wars, in fact – entered the enemy capital to lay down the terms of peace? When Sadat finished, Begin did not applaud. Although he was well known for his oratory in this chamber, his response was improvised and full of rebuke. The sense of grievance was never far from his lips under any circumstances, and in the curious role reversal that was being played out in this encounter, Begin did not offer his own definition of peace; instead, he defended Israel’s right to exist at all. “No sir, we took no foreign land,” he exclaimed. “We returned to our homeland. The bond between our people and this land is eternal. It was created at the dawn of human history…. Here we became a nation. And when we were exiled from our land because of the force that was applied against us, and when we were thrust far from our land, we never forgot this land, even for one day. We prayed for her. We longed for her.” He mentioned Sadat’s trip to the Holocaust museum earlier in the day. “With your own eyes you saw what the fate of our people was when this homeland was taken from it,” he said. “No one came to our rescue, not from the East and not from the West. And therefore we, this entire generation, the generation of Holocaust and resurrection, swore an oath of allegiance: never again shall we endanger our people.”

Peace had seemed so close at hand when Sadat’s plane had landed in Israel, but when he left it was still very far away.

Camp David


Camp David

FEBRUARY 14 – MARCH 15, 2020

Take a behind-the-scenes look at the 1978 historical moment whose legacy continues to resonate 41 years later - the inspirational agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, with the powerful help of U.S. President Jimmy Carter.