Thursday, July 9, 2015

Miracle at Camp David


In today's NYT, Nick Kristof praises Jimmy Carter.

Just yesterday I wrote up a potential post on Seven Days in September by Lawrence Wright, an account of the Camp David accords brokered by Carter between Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin: 

This book is the 11th of the 12 great books I got for my best Christmas haul ever, every one carefully chosen by my family who obviously know my tastes, all thoughtful, every single one.  I lived through the 1978 Camp David peace conference, but it has faded into memory, and I sure didn't know the details. Jimmy Carter is much maligned, as Kristof says, and the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee gets away with … well, probably incompetence. As the Swedes would say, what do you expect of the Norwegians? They gave the prize to Obama on the come, didn't they? Giving it to Sadat and Begin? Well, in Jimmy Carter's words, Sadat deserved it.

It is a riveting read.  It is the best thing Carter did.  It gives a vivid picture of the best of them, Sadat, who caused Kissinger to say, “Great men are so rare that they take some getting used to,” (this referred to Sadat's kicking out the Russians without checking with anyone first and not asking for anything from the US in return – brilliant move that Kissinger said even he didn't understand at first).  Menachem Begin was first, last, and always a destructive pain in the ass with no sense of honor in carrying out agreed-to obligations, which to this day condemn Israel to lack of closure and lack of peace. And then Sadat and Begin got the prize, and Carter finally got it for his post-presidential work and the Norwegians admitted they had made a mistake.

Talk about taking gambles. It seems Sadat understood his gambles and just accepted them; he had taken them all his life. I hadn't known that his father was black, probably a Nubian I figure. Talk about working your way up. I knew that the Irgun was a terrorist organization, but I didn't know how racist Begin was – as long as it wasn't Jews getting killed, he didn't care. I'm not sure how much of a gamble Carter knew Camp David was – he thought that the rationale path was clear, that getting Sadat and Begin together and having them make nice at Camp David would take three days, and that his role would just be to get them together.  He was an engineer, after all, and feelings and irrationality didn't calculate easily.  That's actually what made him a poor President, not just his taking charge of the White House tennis schedule.

But then you just have to hand it to him. When he realized that he, Carter, would have to come up with the proposals, and he would have to whittle down the obstacles one by one, by God, he did it and he didn't stop. He forged a true friendship with Sadat, and Sadat said, I'll sign what Carter puts in front of me without reading it. Sadat drove his staff crazy with stuff like that; he was brilliant and trusted his ability to maneuver in the future. Everything didn't have to be all worked out. When on day 11 or 12 Sadat had packed his bags to leave without an agreement, Carter confronted him and said not to leave without peace, and not to leave their friendship in tatters. That's what Sadat listened to at the end.

Begin drove his own staff crazy, too, because he didn't really want peace, what he wanted was land and he didn't want to have to trust anyone else, and he didn't want to give anything up. While Sadat was the ultimate intuitive, Begin was the ultimate in sensation-based and detail-oriented. The Israeli staff had the opposite task with Begin of what the Egyptian staff had with Sadat – they had to push him to reasonable positions and trust, the latter of which never really came. Begin prevaricated and never sent the letter that he promised he would about settlements, which was a subsidiary part of the agreement, and this is the basis of Israel's continued expansion and the increasing isolation of Israel from the Western world. The current Israeli government stems from him, it seems. I just read yesterday that the government has blocked a move to make conversions to Judaism easier. God forbid they should be inclusive. It's really racism, I think.

So, as followers of the three great monotheistic religions met at Camp David, and we think of the Charleston Massacre, I can't help but think about these religion's world views. Begin seems to have cleaved to the Book of Joshua, where God grants the land of Canaan to the Israelites, and tells them to wipe out all the tribes who live there, which they do. That sounds like the Islamic State as well – wipe them out! Carter's religion is more like the the Charleston Mother Emanuel church surviving families, those remarkable people. Sadat's religion was not central to his life, it seems, but given a choice, he would choose peace and reason. You can slice viewpoints many ways, but this might be as good as any. Probably three thousand years ago “wipe them out” was a viable strategy, but I don't think it works any more, maybe, hopefully, in major parts of the world, hopefully.

So the Norwegians give the prize to Sadat and Begin and they omit the peacemaker, who risked his presidency on this effort. Sadat gets assassinated by a true believer Islamist, Carter goes down in ignominy, and Begin, the wipe-them-out man? He is reincarnated in the present Israeli government. I can see the gods fighting – the Greek gods fighting and contending with their surrogate humans as pawns seem to capture what's going on better than monotheism, to me. Don't you think?

Budd Shenkin

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