When it comes to cringe-inducing platitudes, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has yielded far more than its fair share. Here are a few: (1) “Everyone knows what the final-status solution will look like. It’s just a matter of getting both sides to say yes.” (2) “The pandering of [insert name of right-wing Israeli politician] to an increasingly extremist electorate is making the possibility of a peace deal ever more remote.” (3) “Unless there’s a two-state solution within [insert suitably alarmist timeframe], demographic realities will force Israel to choose between being a Jewish or a democratic state.”
Since none of these well-worn slogans or many others of similar cast can withstand scrutiny, there is reason to welcome the work of a writer aiming to move beyond them. That is what Nathan Thrall sets out to do in The Only Language They Understand, a book whose stark, contrarian, and emphatically non-ironic title signals its message: to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians, only external force will do.
Thrall is an analyst at the International Crisis Group, an NGO staffed by many former high-level UN officials whose mission is to “prevent wars and shape policies that will build a more peaceful world.” In the case of Israel-Arab affairs, however, the policies followed by the U.S., the Europeans, and international organizations have actually “entrenched the conflict” by giving the parties every incentive not to make peace but to go repeatedly through the inevitably sterile motions of a peace process. Needed instead, Thrall declares, is a policy that will painfully and relentlessly raise the cost of such perpetual heel-dragging higher than the cost of compromise. In brief: all stick, with the carrot to be awarded later.
Published in May, Thrall’s book instantly won plaudits from reviewers in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Weekly Standard have turned to Thrall for expert commentary on Israel and the Middle East. Is the praise deserved? Has Thrall really given us a new, groundbreaking theory or merely perpetrated his own distorting image of Israelis, Palestinians, and America’s role in the Middle East? The answer, alas, is the latter.
Thrall states his thesis most forcefully in the first section of the book, a historical overview of Israel-Arab affairs from the negotiations leading up to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 down through our current era of stalemate. On the basis of this history, he argues that Israel, to begin there, has compromised only when compelled to do so. His chief examples are the peace treaty with Egypt, sealed by Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula thanks to American pressure, and Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” from Gaza owing both to domestic and international pressure and to the havoc wrought by the second intifada. As for the Palestinians, they have been induced to settle for a state limited to the West Bank, Gaza, and eastern Jerusalem thanks to Israel’s overwhelming military superiority.
While Thrall applies his “force” reading to both sides, his telling makes it clear which party in his view is the truly stubborn one. The Palestinians, or at least those represented by Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, have already been sufficiently coerced into “accepting no more than 22 percent of the land on which they had lived before 1948.” Turning to Hamas, he attributes its rise to the “slow enfeeblement” of the PA and frustrations over its inability to secure a final deal. Thus, the unmistakable policy conclusion of his book, though never stated in so many words, is: come down hard on Israel by leveling an unacceptably high price for its refusal to accept a Palestinian state.
The burden of Thrall’s argument having been delivered a third of the way into the book, the rest consists of a jumble of essays and short vignettes mostly related to the general theme but unconnected with each other. A few focus on Israel’s geopolitical situation and the nature of Israeli society, others on the weakness of Palestinian politicians in the face of Israeli occupation. The final section is devoted to Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy during the Obama years, the lesson of which is that America never mustered the nerve to force Israel to do what it has to do.
Almost all scholars and observers of Israeli-Arab affairs, whatever their political allegiances, grant that the history of the conflict is highly contested. One might therefore expect someone offering a “breakthrough” theory to have first mastered that history and acquired a nuanced understanding of the two peoples. The jacket copy informs us that Thrall lives in Jerusalem, which at least counts for something, but his comprehension, to judge from this book, is shallow.
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Most of the works cited in Thrall’s bibliography are newspaper and magazine articles in English, think-tank reports in English, memoirs of policy makers written in English, and a smattering of well-known history books in English, including by Israelis ranging from the historian Anita Shapira to the pro-Palestinian apologist Avi Shlaim. Whether he commands more than a smattering of Hebrew, or for that matter Arabic, is uncertain at best. (Entries marked “Hebrew” or “Arabic” seem to refer only to videos or charts with numbers that anyone could make his way through.)
A typical case in point is Thrall’s section on Israeli society today, based completely on the reading of My Promised Land (2013) by the well-known Israeli journalist Ari Shavit—which, as Thrall mentions, hasn’t even appeared in Hebrew. Although he takes a rather dim view of Shavit’s politics, regarding him as an archetypical exemplar of the hypocritical Israeli attitude toward the Palestinians—full of grandstanding anguish and crocodile tears but lacking the intellectual or political courage to grapple with the sin of Israel’s occupation—he relies entirely on Shavit’s reconstruction of the 1948 war and Israel’s “expulsions” of Palestinians. Only in a footnote does Thrall acknowledge a “rebuttal” to Shavit—actually, a thorough debunking—by Martin Kramer, who unlike him actually knows the languages, looked deeply into the archives, and spoke with both Israeli veterans and Arabs from Lydda itself.
When it comes to internal Palestinian politics, Thrall seems similarly hobbled by unfamiliarity either with sources or with the Islamic politics that dominate Gaza and the family politics that are said to dominate the West Bank. Nor, although he has conversed with Palestinian officials, does he cite archival or primary sources in his accounts of Israeli and Palestinian diplomacy. Such lapses might be overlooked in a traveler’s account of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. In a work building an entire theory on the edifice of historical episodes long studied and debated, they are inexcusable. They also contribute to Thrall’s larger failings as an interpreter of historical evidence.
Take Thrall’s centerpiece example of the Camp David Accords of 1978 and the ensuing Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Despite a few missteps in the process that he acknowledges, the episode stands for Thrall as a model for how America should treat Israel in general. In his telling, President Jimmy Carter was “unrelenting” in pursuit of Middle East peace. Carter bravely and forthrightly pressured Prime Minister Menachem Begin not only to withdraw from Sinai but to agree to an arrangement with the Palestinians as part of a general Middle East peace plan. Carter did so, we are told, by deploying a concept that has come to be known as “linkage”: that is, the belief that the Palestinian question is central to all regional affairs and that resolving it is the way forward to a better Middle East.
Where to begin? For one thing, America was at first a genuine nuisance to Anwar Sadat’s peace-seeking initiative and later at best a sugar daddy to the peace reached bilaterally by the Israelis and Egyptians—for Israeli and Egyptian reasons. For another, as a variety of writers (including Efraim Karsh, Michael Doran, and Fouad Ajami) have shown, the Carter administration’s zealous insistence on a “Middle East-wide deal” that would include the Syrians and Palestinians nearly torpedoed the prospects of that bilateral peace itself.
By most reliable accounts, Sadat was pleased at the opportunity finally to break free of the disastrously costly coordination with Syria and the other Arab countries with respect to Israel, and even more pleased to solidify the Egyptian break with the Soviet Union. (In his memoirs, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has argued that the latter break was Sadat’s strategic aim in the 1973 war—a theory borne out by subsequent events.) In any case, the thesis that Begin agreed to leave Sinai thanks to Carter’s pressure, and not out of a desire for recognition by and peace with the largest Arab state, is preposterous.
As for “linkage,” Thrall’s unquestioning personal allegiance to that fanciful notion is, in the face of the chaos now roiling the Arab world, almost charming. Yet, on the basis of it, he insists, Carter was able to extract meaningful concessions from Begin. Though the American president did not succeed in forcing an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, he did succeed in gaining Begin’s assent to eventual Palestinian self-governance in the West Bank—thus placing the Palestinian question on the global agenda.
No doubt Carter, more recently the author of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, would be delighted by this account of his brilliantly forceful statesmanship. So, indeed, would a large subset of American professional diplomats. It tells them that their efforts have been heroic and that the only reason so much of the Middle East is in political tatters today is that Washington has strayed from the true path.
Unfortunately, Thrall’s account also happens to be deeply implausible. Although Sadat did indeed invoke the Palestinian question in his famous address to Israel’s Knesset, he was perfectly willing to sign a peace agreement providing no resolution of that question. All subsequent Egyptian rulers, aside from the brief interlude of Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2014, have followed Sadat’s policy and kept the peace.
Then there is Thrall’s treatment of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to “disengage” from Gaza in 2005. According to Thrall, Sharon was influenced by pressure from two directions: the mounting toll taken by the effort to quell the second Palestinian intifada and the outcry over it from the Israeli public and the international community. In fact, Sharon went ahead with the withdrawal years after the worst of the intifada was over, its back broken through costly Israeli incursions into West Bank cities.
The rationale behind Sharon’s withdrawal is one of the unknowns of modern Israeli history. Always highly secretive politically, Sharon evidently disclosed to no one, including his closest advisers, his actual strategic plans with respect to Gaza. Thrall for his part is certain that Sharon acted largely because of American and international pressure; others might argue that he wanted to wash his hands of Gaza so as to be free to envelop the West Bank, and still others that he intended Gaza as a dress rehearsal for a larger withdrawal from the West Bank. In Israel, one popular explanation has it that he acted in order to distract the public from looming corruption investigations.
All of this is intriguing but idle: Sharon left no record of his thinking. Thrall’s theory, itself full of holes, is even less susceptible of being validated.
But let us stipulate for a moment that only American or international pressure has caused progress toward a piece of paper declaring peace and a two-state solution and signed by Israel and the Palestinians. It would still remain the first purpose of policy makers to inquire into the political rationale for the pressure. Given the geopolitical situation and America’s foreign-policy goals, what would such an outcome accomplish? Failing to address this question, Thrall merely assumes that the alleged Israeli recalcitrance is devoid of reason or substance, that a political settlement with the Palestinians is the one most needful thing, and that any and all pressure to accomplish that settlement is therefore good—and, moreover, in the American interest.
Yet even ignoring Israel’s interests, how would a Palestinian state whose borders are in shooting distance of all of Israel’s major cities advance American interests in the Middle East? What would an independent Palestinian state mean for the integrity and future of Jordan, a neighboring country and an American ally? How should our thinking on these matters be affected by the implosion of state structures elsewhere in the Middle East? Have America and the other world powers, either in the past or in more recent times, shown themselves to be competent at guaranteeing the integrity of newly created states in the Arab world?
On this last point, surely Thrall is aware of the violent intra-Palestinian conflicts between Hamas and Fatah, the violent threat that Gaza poses to the Egyptian Sinai, the violent disintegration of Syria. If he nevertheless believes that a Palestinian state with a border lying only 30 enticing miles from Syria would contribute to American interests or regional stability, he owes us a frank assessment that is conspicuously absent.
Seen in this light, Thrall’s book exemplifies the foibles and dangers of a popular strain of American thinking about Israel and its neighbors. Call it America-centrism. Even where he offers an account of the locals, the account must fit them into American paradigms—and highly politicized paradigms at that. For him, the decisive question in all of Palestinian politics revolves around an American-brokered peace process and American relations with Israel.
Anyone with any real knowledge of the Middle East would find this risible, as the Hamas example by itself suggests. As we’ve seen, Thrall regards Hamas’s rise as essentially a response to America’s, and through America the PA’s, failure to secure a peace treaty. In fact, Hamas as the governing body of Gaza has made many external strategic calculations but very few, if any, related to the question of the “peace treaty” or the role of America. One would learn more by studying the Gaza regime’s twisting and complicated relations with the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. But Thrall, like other American analysts of the Middle East, sees only America and what he is certain America should be doing. Thereby he commits a double sin: without knowing the Middle East, he presumes to know what would be best for it; without asking first-order questions about the nature of America’s interests in the Middle East, he prescribes a recklessly intensive American involvement in the region.
A reader might wonder why I have devoted so much time to a rather poor book. The reason is that it perfectly represents a growing sentiment about the Middle East held by some Americans and Europeans. While Thrall offers only one oblique reference to the BDS movement, his theory supports its central tenet: make Israel feel so much economic pain that it will finally succumb. One increasingly hears and reads similar arguments emanating from progressive circles, and they are likely to grow.
Thrall’s work, in its drastic overestimation of American wisdom and power combined with a postmodern unwillingness to consider the concrete purposes of that power, plays very well into this mix. How the Trump administration will handle the Israel-Palestinian question remains unclear. Among other obstacles, it will have to confront the pairing of utopianism and imperial hubris that animates The Only Language They Understand: another clever and empty slogan.