The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine by Nathan Thrall, Metropolitan Books (2017)
Over the last few years Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, has been an influential commentator on the Israeli occupation for publications including The New York Times and the London Review of Books.
His essays, some of which appear in revised form in this book, address both larger historical trends and recent events, including Israel’s 2014 military offensive in Gaza and Barack Obama’s presidency in the US. Thrall writes with persuasive rigor and his tone is always measured, even when citing horrifying evidence and statistics.
The Only Language They Understand opens with a 70-page essay that gives the collection its title. Thrall explains that it is a phrase he has heard many times:
Whether uttered by a Hamas leader sitting amid the rubble of his Gaza home destroyed by an Israeli F-16 or spoken by a West Bank yeshiva student mourning the loss of neighbors stabbed to death by Palestinian assailants, the phrase means one thing: talk is pointless, because the enemy will be persuaded only by force.
Thrall seeks to correct a tendency in American policy and public opinion, since at least the late 1970s, to see Israel as an ally that needs to be gently encouraged to behave differently. As summarized by Martin Indyk, former US ambassador to Israel: “American presidents can be more successful when they put their arms around Israeli prime ministers and encourage them to move forward.”
This theory ultimately became a guiding principle of policy in the Obama years but, Thrall suggests, “the opposite is true.” He argues that “Faced with the threat of real losses – whether human, economic or political – Israelis and Palestinians have made dramatic concessions to avert them.”
It is a limit in his approach that the key terms “force” and “concessions” are not more clearly defined.
Thrall writes in the introduction that force includes “but [is] not limited to violence” and he cites as other examples: “economic sanctions, boycotts, threats, unarmed protests, and other forms of confrontation.”
The use of one umbrella term to describe such different approaches is unhelpful, not least as it implies an equivalence between parties with very different levels of power.
Thrall’s definition of “force” encompasses US tactics such as withholding economic or military aid to Israel, which have seldom been used; Israeli state warfare against Palestinians; and violence by individuals, whether they be Israeli settlers or Palestinians resisting the occupation.
Thrall himself acknowledges that “forcing Israel to make larger, conflict-ending concessions” would require “more power than the Palestinians have so far possessed” or than the US has been willing to use. But he persists in using “force,” rather than “power,” as his defining term.
Pressure on Israel
In Thrall’s account, Jimmy Carter emerges as a surprisingly shrewd and incisive figure.
Carter, Thrall suggests, “applied extraordinary pressure on Israel,” unlike any subsequent US president, in an attempt to end the occupation through the 1978-79 Camp David accords. He quotes Moshe Dayan, Israel’s foreign minister at the time: “Though Carter spoke in a dull monotone, there was fury in his cold blue eyes, and his glance was dagger sharp.”
Yet Thrall is damning about both Camp David and the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s. He concludes of the latter: “Oslo allowed Israel not to end the occupation but repackage it, from direct to indirect control.”
Thrall details the many issues that both sets of negotiations left unresolved:
Neither demanded a withdrawal of settlements nor even a halt in their expansion; neither stated that Palestinians would have a capital in any part of Jerusalem; neither suggested how the refugee problem would be resolved; neither described what Israel’s borders would be or whether there would be a withdrawal to something close to the pre-1967 lines; neither indicated that the Palestinians would eventually achieve self-determination; and, most critically, neither specified what would happen if negotiations on the final status of the West Bank and Gaza did not successfully conclude.
Thrall’s primary argument – that only force, not negotiation or compromise, has moved the situation between Israel and the Palestinians forward – is recapitulated in a minor key in perhaps his most compelling essay, “Not Popular Enough.” It demonstrates how overwhelmingly peaceful the resistance by Palestinians has been.
It is a quietly heartbreaking chapter.
Thrall notes for example that “more than 93 percent of Palestine’s land remained outside Jewish hands at the outset of the 1948 war” and he details how “only a few thousand” Palestinians fought in that conflict or later ones.
He shows that “the four most notable acts of Palestinian rebellion” – the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, the general strike of 1976, and both the first and second intifadas – all began “in nonviolent protest.”
Thrall undercuts American and Israeli rhetoric about Palestinian violence. He notes that, despite the severity with which such incidents are treated, “not a single [Israeli] soldier has died from a thrown stone” during the conflict.
He quotes former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak: “The Palestinians are the source of legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict, but they are the weakest of all our adversaries. As a military threat they are ludicrous. They pose no military threat of any kind.”
Thrall’s implication is that the Palestinian resistance may not have achieved more of its aims in part because it has been so peaceful. He notes that it has been “much less deadly than struggles against foreign occupiers elsewhere in the world.”
A male world
Thrall’s criticisms are mostly of US policy makers, who seem to be one of his intended audiences. It is striking that he describes an almost entirely male world, aside from cameos from figures such as Condoleezza Rice and Golda Meir.
The book suffers from the lack of a feminist perspective on its own language of “force.” Scholar Carol Cohn has narrated her encounters with US defense intellectuals, concluding: “The dominant voice of militarized masculinity and decontextualized rationality speaks so loudly in our culture, it will remain difficult for any other voices to be heard.”
Thrall wishes to reverse the conventional wisdom about when it is “rational” to use force. But he is not willing to challenge the terms of the debate, nor does his book substantially change which voices are heard within it.
This may be why Thrall’s analysis is more persuasive than his conclusions.
He provides a devastating account of former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s failed efforts toward a two-state solution, which he notes “had no established terms of reference” and “went nowhere.”
Thrall concludes that Kerry “did not come close to resolving the 1967 issues, much less the 1948 ones” – Israel’s settlement enterprise and military occupation, on the one hand, and the original dispossession that has rendered millions of Palestinians refugees, on the other.
Yet Thrall suggests that: “Through pressure on the parties, a peaceful partition of Palestine is achievable.”
He does not entertain the possibility that Kerry and others have been wrong about the ends, as well as the means. There is almost no discussion of other possibilities, such as a binational or federal state.
This book is designed to be provocative for an American audience, including policymakers, and its description of the illusions of would-be US peacemakers is cogent and powerful.
However, it is likely to frustrate those more familiar with the situation.
The Only Language They Understand ends with a downbeat assessment of Obama’s “legacy,” which Thrall suggests many Palestinians saw as “disappointing, unjust and ineffectual” and yet “perhaps still the best they were going to get.”
It is hard to argue with the first part of this assessment, and much of Thrall’s analysis, which is the major part of the book, will be useful even to those who disagree with his conclusions.
Nonetheless, Thrall’s book itself points to the fact that another language than “force” is needed, in order to speak not only of what the Palestinians can get, but of the justice they are due.
Tom Sperlinger is the author of *Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation, which is published by Zero Books.*