Select Page

Camp David and Gettysburg

Camp David and Gettysburg

by William H. Benson

November 19, 2014

     On November 9, 1977, Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s president, set aside his speech to the Egyptian People’s Assembly and said, “I am ready to travel to the ends of the earth. 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 him, and so they wondered, “What good could come from a debate with Israel?”

     Egypt and Israel were bitter enemies, and so all wondered, “What did Sadat want?” Menachem Begin, Israel’s prime minister, extended an invitation to Sadat to visit Israel, and he accepted.

     Ten days later, on November 19, Sadat’s plane landed at Jerusalem’s Ben Gurion Airport, and Golda Meir and Menachem Begin welcomed Anwar Sadat to Israel. That morning Sadat and Begin visited the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and also the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Begin explained to Sadat that the Nazis had murdered his parents in Poland.

     Next, Sadat stood at the podium and addressed members of the Knesset. “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. Peace is based on justice, and not on the occupation of the land of others. You have to give up, once and for all, the dreams of conquest, and give up the belief that force is the best method for dealing with the Arabs. We insist on complete withdrawal from these territories.”

     So that was what Sadat wanted. To the Israelis he was offering an intangible item, peace, in exchange for a tangible item, the return of the territories that Israel had seized in the 1967 Six Day War, including Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It was doubtful that Israel would agree to Sadat’s offer.

     Sadat departed Israel, but nothing much came from his bold gesture. Blinded by past grievances and prejudiced backgrounds, neither he nor Begin knew how to forge a peace treaty with each other.

    The following summer, Jimmy Carter, then the President of the United States, invited Sadat and Begin to his Presidential retreat at Camp David, just minutes away from the White House. “Carter assumed that reasonable people of good will could surely solve the problem if they escaped the pressures of their home environments and sat down to talk. That was about as wrong then as it is now.”

     Carter knew nothing about what he was doing. This was a high risk gamble, a risk-it-all venture that laid his presidency on the line, a most foolish thing to do. All his advisors cautioned him not to do it.  

     In recent weeks, the author, Lawrence Wright, published his most recent book, Thirteen Days in September, his stirring account of the Camp David talks. Wright reveals how entrenched, arrogant, and intransigent Begin acted. He was “absolutely convinced that he holds the truth in his back pocket, by his overbearing manner.” His tools included: “anger, sarcasm, bombast, exaggeration, wearying repetition of argument, historical lessons from dark chapters of Jewish history, and stubbornness.”

     Carter came to admire Sadat, but he grew to loathe Begin, whom he thought was a “psycho.” “Sadat was the only one among the Egyptians at Camp David who really wanted a deal with Israel, and Begin was the only one among the Israelis who did not want a deal with Egypt.” The two men quarreled, squabbled over details, and often threatened to leave. Carter came to realize that he must lead the way.

     He presented a plan and asked for Sadat and Begin’s agreement. He would then lock down that portion of the plan that the two men approved, and then he would work towards agreement on the points that they disputed. Revision after revision Carter presented, and each in turn they rejected.

     By Sunday, September 10, the three men were suffering from cabin fever, anxious to leave and go home. Carter decided that that day he would drive the two men to Gettysburg in his black limousine.

     Carter’s great-grandfather had fought for Georgia at the battle, and like most boys raised in the South, Jimmy Carter felt an attraction for the battle when the Confederacy had invaded the North. At the cemetery, filled with rows of tombstones, Carter explained that it was there that President Lincoln had delivered his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.

      Begin surprised everyone there that day when he began speaking in a quiet voice, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

     Jimmy, Rosalyn, Sadat, Moshe Dayan and all their advisors looked up at the Israeli leader and listened as he quoted Lincoln’s words, gaining power as he continued, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln, the tallest of men, had cast a shadow that fell across a school in a Polish village where a young Menachem Begin may have first read the Gettysburg Address.

     The three men returned to Camp David, and days later Begin and Sadat agreed to Carter’s “Framework for a Comprehensive Peaceful Settlement of the Middle East Problem.” Both Sadat and Begin received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978, but all three men—a Southern Baptist Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew—recognized the arduous effort that is required to end war and establish peace.


     Lawrence Wright ended his book with a most remarkable sentence. “Since the signing of the treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, there has not been a single violation of the terms of the agreement. It’s impossible to calculate the value of peace until war brings it to an end.”