illiam F. Buckley Jr. once wrote of his friend and frequent sparring partner John Kenneth Galbraith, “It is fortunate for Professor Galbraith that he was born with singular gifts as a writer. It is a pity he hasn’t used these skills in other ways than to try year after year to bail out his sinking ships.”
It is tempting to apply this quip to Nathan Thrall. A harsh critic of Israeli policy, Thrall nonetheless has earned a rare degree of respect and intellectual admiration from his ideological adversaries. And that’s why Thrall and his belligerent new book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, must be taken seriously.
The book gets many things right, as when Thrall scornfully offers a list of common excuses for why each round of diplomacy fails:
Bad timing; artificial deadlines; insufficient preparation; no agreed terms of reference; inadequate confidence-building measures; coalition politics; or leaders devoid of courage. Many blame imbalanced mediation; poor coordination among separate negotiating channels; scant attention from the U.S. president; want of support from regional states; exclusion of key stakeholders; or clumsily choreographed public diplomacy.
He justifiably knocks the naive and “deep-seated belief that both societies desire a two-state agreement and therefore need only the right conditions—together with a bit of nudging, trust-building, and perhaps a few more positive inducements—to take the final step.”
Thrall reminds readers that “no strategy can succeed if it is premised on Israel behaving irrationally.” And he chides those who warn Israel that she stands on the precipice of a one-state solution: “In fact, Israelis and Palestinians are now farther from a single state than they have been at any time since the occupation began in 1967.” That’s because the very security measures that draw the ire of the international community, like fences and other physical barriers, have been making separation, not integration, a fact on the ground. And the very incrementalism Thrall denounces as counterproductive, like “quasi-state” Palestinian governing institutions, makes political separation easier.
Alas, what Thrall gets right is far outweighed by what Thrall gets wrong. Begin with the book’s central thesis: Only displays of force by one side can win (and have won) meaningful and lasting concessions from the other. The imbalance of power in this situation, in Thrall’s telling, is that Israel has it and the Palestinians don’t. Thus, The Only Language They Understand is a call to violence against Israel.
“It is force—including but not limited to violence—that has impelled each side to make its largest concessions, from Palestinian acceptance of a two-state solution to Israeli territorial withdrawals,” Thrall writes. Attempts by the world powers to tamp down confrontation, facilitate security cooperation, provide economic assistance, and build Palestinian institutions, Thrall says, “have entrenched the conflict by lessening the incentives to end it.”
Thrall strains to provide a flash history of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict to conform to his thesis. His purpose is not only to show what the Jews gained by choosing violence but also what the Palestinians have lost by (supposedly) not doing so. What did the Palestinians lose, in his view? Nothing less than the whole country. Thrall claims that nonviolence was the rule for Palestinians up until 1948: “During the first decades of Zionist immigration to Palestine, Jews barely encountered violent opposition. Palestinians instead protested by withholding cooperation, appealing to the Ottoman and British authorities to slow Zionist immigration, and refusing to sell their property. Through such means, more than 93 percent of Palestine’s territory remained outside Jewish hands at the outset of the 1948 war.”
This is potted. Thrall completely evades the subject of anti-Jewish violence that began in Palestine in 1919. A weeklong riot in 1921, reported the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, cost the lives of nearly 50 Jews. In August 1929 came the massacre of the Jewish community of Hebron, during a week that also saw violence in Safed, Jerusalem, and Jaffa that left more than 130 Jews dead. In 1948, researcher Mark Lewis points out, the Anglo-American Committee reported that spending on security in 1936–37 rose by 840 percent because “the hostility shown toward the Jews during the riots was shared by Arabs of all classes; Muslim and Christian Arabs, whose relations had hitherto been uneasy, were for once united.”
Thrall’s history of the Israeli War of Independence isn’t much better. He attempts to paint Israel as Goliath to the Palestinians’ David from the beginning in order portray the outcome as inevitable: “By the end of the 1948 war—at every stage of which Israeli forces outnumbered the combined total of Arab forces—Israel had expanded its boundaries to 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine.”
This is astoundingly misleading. Israel started with no regular single army and, according to historian Benny Morris, three tanks and barely anything that qualified as heavy weaponry. According to Morris, the Arab armies had 75 combat aircraft, 40 tanks, and hundreds of heavy field and tank-piercing guns. They also had Israel surrounded and began with standing, unified, trained national armies with a massive support network in the Arab world and Arab fighters in the not-yet-partitioned country.
Even when Thrall gets his facts right, his conclusions are a stretch. He recounts the events leading up to the historic 1979 Israel–Egypt peace agreement as a successful attempt by President Jimmy Carter to pressure Israel the way no president had been willing to do before or since. His key moment comes when the U.S. and the Soviet Union, without conferring with the Israelis or Palestinians, released a joint statement that put Israel on the defensive. All the major Jewish organizations condemned the statement, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin pressed the Carter administration to backtrack, which it eventually did.
Thrall’s contention is that this backfired on Begin precisely because the Israelis had won the round. Carter pleaded with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat for help. Sadat soon accepted Begin’s invitation to come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset. Sadat thereby “rescued” Carter’s peace process, forcing Israel to respond and setting in motion the path to Camp David. “Jimmy Carter succeeded in forcing one of the most right-wing, annexationist figures in Israel’s history to do precisely what he had most sought to avoid: plant the seed of a Palestinian state,” Thrall trumpets.
This is absurd. What happened was this: Israel demonstrated its strength and its willingness to negotiate, but nothing materialized until the Arab world for the first time accepted that Israel held the upper hand. It was the failure of Carter’s attempts to pressure Israel that created the opening.
Thrall’s mischaracterization of
history is on display again when the subject turns to Lebanon, where Yasser Arafat and the PLO had set up shop in the early 1980s. Palestinian attacks from South Lebanon forced an Israeli military response that became the First Lebanon War, under Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Israel won, and Arafat decamped to Tunisia and expressed a willingness to negotiate with Israel.
But since Thrall’s thesis requires each Palestinian “concession” to be the result of an Israeli show of force, he must twist history again. The event that, in this retelling, precipitated Arafat’s concessions was the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Lebanese Christian militiamen entered Palestinian camps and killed 700, unimpeded by Israeli forces. Sharon was later found responsible through negligence by an Israeli inquiry, and resigned.
For his theory to work, Thrall needs Israel to be active, not passive, here. So in his telling, Sharon wasn’t negligent, but practically orchestrated the bloodbath: “Sharon, who had repeatedly told IDF officers that Christian militias should ‘clean out’ West Beirut, now ordered the army to allow Christian militiamen to enter Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.”
What did Sharon actually say? According to a New York Times report in June 1982, the full quote was: “We never said that we would not clean out or liquidate the infrastructure of the terrorists, which by the way, we discovered was about 10 times larger than what we had thought.” Sharon was talking about weapons caches, not people—a fact that lets the air out of Thrall’s rhetorical tires.
Occasionally, Thrall’s attempts to justify his thesis are little more than pathetic. In 1998, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talks with Arafat culminated in a major land-for-peace deal, mediated by President Bill Clinton at Wye River, Maryland. At every step of the way, Palestinian violence only delayed the process. When it temporarily subsided, Netanyahu and Arafat signed the deal—but the violence that followed delayed the deal’s implementation. Here’s how Thrall sums it up: “Finalized in fall 1998, during the quietist period of the Oslo years, much of the Wye memorandum was never implemented.”
The “quietist” lull, Thrall claims, was fatal to implementing the deal. In fact, the reverse was true. The Israeli government on December 22, 1998, even released a five-point memorandum detailing what needed to be done on the Palestinian side for Israel to end the implementation delay. It read:
- The PA must refrain from a unilateral declaration on a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
- The PA must halt violence.
- The PA must halt the incitement to violence.
- The PA must refrain from demanding (in violation of the agreement) that Israel release murderers and prisoners with blood on their hands.
- The PA must collect and remove illegal arms, arrest murderers residing in its areas and cooperate with Israel in combating terrorism.
The memorandum went on to note: “If the Palestinian Authority fulfills all of these commitments, Israel will carry out its part of the Wye agreement regardless of the date of elections in Israel.”
Thrall would’ve been better off ignoring the parts of the story that blew up his thesis than trying to hammer all the round pegs into square holes.
In fact, the kind of book Thrall chose to write put him at a distinct disadvantage. Though the book was released in 2017, he has included so many previously published essays that it feels older and out of date. His chapter on what was, at that point, the most recent flare-up of violence in Jerusalem was written in 2014 and is now irrelevant. His chapter purporting to explain why President Barack Obama’s peace push failed was likewise written in 2014.
Obama’s diplomacy should have confirmed Thrall’s preconceived notions. After all, immediately after becoming president, Obama told Jewish groups that the “no daylight” policy between Israel and the United States would be discarded. Yet not only did Obama fail; we now know it was Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas who ultimately scuttled negotiations. No less a fervent critic of Netanyahu’s than the perennial Democratic Israel hand Martin Indyk admitted to NPR that when the U.S. delegation had put together possible outlines of a solution, Abbas “was not prepared to accept them. He was not prepared to answer. . . And so we never had the opportunity to test Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
That’s not how Nathan Thrall tells it; Thrall believes the ideology of U.S. negotiators has played a central role in the repeated failure of the peace process. He divides these men into three categories: Skeptics, who don’t believe that the Palestinians will make peace on terms Israel’s government would accept; Reproachers, who believe that a solution is possible that will satisfy Israel’s needs but will also require more pressure on Jerusalem than the Skeptics will countenance; and Embracers, who believe that a just final-status deal and a “no daylight” policy are compatible.
It is clear the Reproachers have Thrall’s utmost sympathy. And he admits that “no U.S. administration had been more stacked with Reproachers than Barack Obama’s, and no American president had been more sympathetic to Palestinians.” Alas for his thesis, “during their eight years in power, Obama and his advisers achieved much less for them than did George W. Bush.”
And why is that? The reason is that President George W. Bush did precisely the opposite of what Thrall would recommend. Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was made possible by Bush’s written assurances that not only would there be “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel; those assurances essentially legitimized some Israeli settlements as inevitably—and, therefore, already functionally—permanent Israeli territory.
Thrall can’t process such inconvenient truths, and the closest he comes to an explanation is that Sharon offered Bush a better settlement freeze than Netanyahu offered Obama: “The principal difference was that Sharon offered it in exchange for a halt in the Palestinian violence then raging, whereas when Obama entered office, the Second Intifada had long since ended.”
So we’re back to violence being a necessary ingredient. That’s really all the Palestinians have to offer, isn’t it? Sadly, it appears that’s all Thrall has to offer as well.