Books: Imposing a solution

Nathan Thrall argues that the US should leverage its power to force Israel to make concessions for peace.

US President Jimmy Carter (right) and prime minister Menachem Begin meet at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in March 1979 (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
US President Jimmy Carter (right) and prime minister Menachem Begin meet at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in March 1979
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
In a memoir, Martin Indyk, who served as US ambassador to Israel in the 1990s and special envoy for Israel-Palestinian negotiations in 2013 and 2014, opined that “American presidents can be more successful when they put their arms around Israeli prime ministers and encourage them to move forward, rather than attempt to browbeat them into submission.”
Dennis Ross, president Bill Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s special adviser for the Persian Gulf, made a similar claim in his book Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama. “When the United States pressured Israel,” Ross wrote, “we never benefited.”
Nathan Thrall does not agree. A senior analyst with the International Crisis Group who writes frequently about the Middle East for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times and the London Review of Books, Thrall maintains that Israel has made significant concessions only when confronted with “force, included but not limited to violence.”
In The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, a densely detailed collection of essays written between 2010 and 2016, Thrall argues that the Palestinians lack the leadership, organization, resource and active assistance from Arab states to take on Israel’s military – and that the United States “has actually protected Israel from accountability for its policies” by “putting up a façade of opposition to settlements” that in practice constitutes a bulwark against pressure to dismantle them.
With the episodic exceptions of Dwight Eisenhower (in the Suez Crisis of 1956) and Jimmy Carter (in the Camp David Accords), Thrall asserts, US presidents have not used the leverage at their disposal, “including conditioning aid to changes in behavior.” Listening to American policymakers weigh their options about the peace process, he writes, “is like listening to the operator of a bulldozer ask how he can demolish a building with his hammer.”
Some readers of The Only Language They Understand are likely to conclude that in making his case, and especially in his indictment of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Thrall uses (rhetorical) hammers and bulldozers. Even the most ardent defenders of Israeli policies, however, should acknowledge Thrall’s mastery to facts on the ground, historical context and diplomatic tactics and strategies on all sides.
In my judgment, just about everyone interested in peace between Israelis and Palestinians will learn something and find something to ponder in this counter-intuitive, controversial and at times compelling book.
Thrall’s thesis that negotiation without coercion has provided insufficient incentives to end the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, thereby reinforcing the status quo, raises more questions than it answers. His definition of “force” is broad; in addition to violence, it includes “economic sanctions, boycotts, threats, unarmed protests and other forms of confrontation.”
These approaches appear, singly or in combination, in virtually every negotiation.
Defined in this way, force has succeeded – some of the time. That said, history is also strewn with examples, in the Middle East and elsewhere, of force that has failed to break a deadlock and, at times, stiffened resistance. Finally, Thrall does not address the legitimacy or the downside of the use of coercion by a powerful country, no matter how noble its intentions, to impose a settlement on one or two reluctant parties.
Clearly, Thrall’s advocacy of force is born of his frustration with and anger at Israeli, Palestinian and American leaders who seem willing, for various reasons, to accept a status quo he regards as intolerable. With the destruction of massive amounts of agricultural land, livestock and manufacturing during the war with Israel, Gaza, Thrall reminds us, has the largest percentage of unemployed people of any economy in the world, 80% of the population subsists on donor aid, 39% live below the poverty line and 20% of homes are not connected to sewerage. A third of Gaza residents have access to water for six to eight hours every four days. Infant mortality, crime and lawlessness are rising.
Even as he hopes for an imposed solution based on what he regards as the legitimate legal and moral claim of the Palestinians “to more territory than that which Israel conquered in 1967,” however, Thrall admits that the United States has no incentive to exert leverage. The potential benefits of creating a “small, strategically inconsequential Palestinian state,” he writes, are tiny compared with the costs of antagonizing an ally with considerable clout domestically and in the region. And so, The Only Language They Understand ends where Thrall began: With Israeli politicians, a majority of Israeli citizens, and many Palestinian elites (including businessmen with lucrative contracts and members of the Palestinian Authority who cooperate with the Israelis on security) unhappy with but prepared to tolerate existing conditions, while Americans preach that the impasse is unsustainable, even as (through their actions and inactions) they help perpetuate it.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.