In each of the last 50 years, hundreds of books on the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict have been published. A majority of them, particularly those written in English, have assumed — some more flagrantly than others — that there is something inherently positive, and even necessary, about Zionist Israel. At the same time, there is often a corresponding assumption, often quite openly presented, that there is something inherently negative about the Palestinians and other Arabs.
This has been so, despite the fact that Israel has been demonstrated to be every bit as violent as other states and certainly more violent than the Palestinians. It is so, despite the fact that Zionist Israel has been shown to be more discriminatory in its domestic practices, indeed more racist, than most other states and certainly more racist than the Palestinians. The behavior of present day anti-Semites, none of whom are yet in possession of state power, cannot compare to the racist practices of today’s empowered Zionists.
The international community, in particular the United States, does not have a good record of confronting Israeli racism and arrogance. It has not gone beyond words in the defense of Palestinian rights, even when the denial of those rights has been in defiance of UN resolutions and international law. This lack of forcefulness has permitted not only the deterioration of Palestinian rights, but also the devaluation of international law itself. As such, allowing Zionist Israel to continue on its chosen path is in no one’s interest.
Given this situation, Nathan Thrall’s recent book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, appears to promise some welcome insight into how to effectively deal with a downward spiral that affects us all. Thrall is an analyst and writer specializing in Middle East affairs, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This book has been well received by reviewers in such diverse publications as the New York Times Book Review and the British-based Financial Times. This is so despite the fact that the work appears to be, in part, a cobbled together series of earlier essays by the author, written between October 2014 and September 2016.
Thrall’s thesis is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not insoluble. However, to solve it will require "the threat of real losses, whether human, economic or political" on both sides of the conflict (p. 27). This is particularly true when it comes to changing the behavior of the stronger party — Israel.
To back this assertion Thrall notes that "each of Israel’s territorial withdrawals was carried out under duress" (p. 27). This was certainly the case at the end of the 1956 Sinai Crisis. U.S. President Eisenhower called Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and told him that "if Israel did not unconditionally withdraw [from Egyptian territory], it would lose all aid from the United States and from American Jews, and the U.S. would not oppose Israel’s expulsion from the UN" (p. 28). This approach worked; Israel rapidly announced its withdrawal.
It is important to note that, in 1956, Zionist Israel was not yet backed by a powerful and influential lobby to counter such presidential threats. By the next time such a situation arose, under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the outcome was different. Thrall does give President Carter credit for trying to deal forcefully with the Israelis, but ultimately it was to no avail. Though the author does not go into details, the reason for this was that by Carter’s time, U.S. support of Israel was no longer just a foreign-policy issue. It was a domestic one. As such, particularly at the congressional level, support for any forceful approach toward Israel was subject to the influence of heavily financed special-interest groups that collectively functioned as agents of a foreign power: Israel. Senator William Fulbright recognized this fact as early as 1963 but could not derail the lobby’s growing power. The Palestinians had no counterbalance to this Zionist lobby.
Thus, in 1977, when Jimmy Carter tried to force compromise on the Israelis for the sake of peace and justice, he was ultimately unsuccessful. He was unable to stand up to Zionist domestic-lobby pressure in Congress and within the Democratic Party itself.
The rest of Thrall’s book, chapter two and beyond, describes how the target of forceful persuasion shifts to the weaker party, the Palestinians. That is why, in the past 25 years, meaningful concessions have come from only one side. As Thrall suggests, events that look like great Israeli concessions, such as the Oslo Agreements (p. 143) and the withdrawal from Gaza (p. 157ff) turned out to be Israeli tactical maneuvers to undermine or isolate Palestinian opposition to the ultimate Zionist goal: absorption of the West Bank. One should point out here that Hamas fighters would claim Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza was made under the duress produced by their forceful resistance.
Getting back to targeting the weaker party, Thrall believes that leaders of both sides went along with this fatal shift in emphasis. The Israelis, of course, had no trouble with it in practice. However, some Zionists have spent (and continue to spend) much of their time in what looks like explaining away a guilty conscience. The author describes Ari Shavit’s argument in My Promised Land that the historical situation of the Jews made the founding of Israel inevitable, and all of the associated violence "unavoidable" (p. 90). Thrall calls the book a "trojan horse" of exoneration designed for American readers (p. 89).
Shavit can only see things from the Israeli perspective, but we expect more from Thrall. Although the author does note that Israeli strategy, while sustainable, is not without costs (p.133), he really does not analyze the many negative domestic consequences that have placed Israeli democracy in crisis mode. For instance, many Israelis have come to question whether their country can provide a promising future for them or their children. Many of those who can get a foreign passport — ironically, this usually comes from Germany — have done so. Likewise, emigration out of Israel is now regularly greater than immigration into the country. This has helped give rise to Zionism’s fear of a "demographic holocaust." These are symptoms of the fact that Zionist Israel has become a moral disaster for its own people and for Jews and Judaism in general.
The author does better when it comes to analyzing the costs for the Palestinian side. Here he takes up the example of Salam Fayyad, the American-educated and appointed (not elected) prime minister in Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority (PA). PA strategy under Abbas entailed bilateral negotiations, diplomacy and security cooperation with Israel (p. 130). Fayyad believed that through such a strategy, the PA could "establish unilaterally a de facto Palestinian state." The cornerstone of this effort was to be a "reformed security force" that would be devoted to securing the rule of law on the West Bank (p. 112). This effort was funded by the United States, which also managed the training program.
In the long run, the Palestinians under occupation could not control the evolution of their own security force any more than other aspects of their public lives. Soon outside pressure compelled the Palestinian security force to prioritize keeping the Israelis on the West Bank safe. This was done in the name of "counterterrorism" (p. 113). The resulting corruption was most evident during the 2008-09 Israeli war on Gaza (during which Abbas apparently supported the Israelis). Palestinian security personnel were used to suppress all support for the Gaza Palestinians (p. 119). Fayyad finally resigned from office in 2013.
It is probably a sign of popular fatigue on the West Bank that this corruption of the security force was but a secondary concern to a Palestinian public more worried about "stalled salary payments and increases in the cost of living" (p.129), even as they deeply resented their economic dependency (p. 131-2) on a government that was, in many ways, a native extension of their foreign oppressors.
After a time, Thrall starts to show the same fatigue as the West Bank’s dependent population. He seems to weary of his thesis that force is the only language Israeli leaders respond to. By the second half of the book, he appears to conclude that there is no practicable way to make the Israelis adopt policies they see as against their national interests. Correspondingly, "no political incentives exist for the U.S. to change its policies …. [because of] the [political] costs of heavily pressuring a close ally that wields significant regional and U.S. domestic power" (p. 209). Thus, U.S. policy cannot go beyond pressuring the Palestinians not to pressure Israel, and unsuccessfully nagging Israel about its settlement expansion. So much for his book’s encouraging title.
This seems a bit too easy, and it is worth taking a look at Thrall’s assumptions here. In just what way are present Israeli policies in its "national interests"? They can only be so if we grant Israel’s right to remain a racist and expansionist entity. For what it is worth, I believe this alleged right is being questioned by ever-greater numbers of both Jews and non-Jews. It should also be kept in mind that, like the Palestinians, most Israelis are bound to their pocketbooks, and there might come a time when economic pressure makes racism distinctly not in their "national interest." Nor is American popular tolerance for U.S. support of Israel endlessly inevitable. For instance, will there come a time when America’s economic conditions no longer generate popular support for the billions of dollars in "aid" (which Thrall characterizes as a "mismanagement of American taxpayers’ dollars," p. 191) to a racist Zionist state? Most probably, that time will come.
Unfortunately, Thrall places little hope in present efforts to achieve economic pressure on Israel. For instance, he does not think the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has the ability to ultimately change Israeli policy. Such boycotts cannot "stop the country's banks, cable television companies, or supermarkets from operating beyond the 1967 lines, nor would they significantly reduce the number of settlers, most of whom work... in government jobs in the settlements and in the private sector in Israel proper" (p. 186). This may be true, but he does not ask alternatively what the BDS movement can do. It is already making it increasingly uncomfortable for Israeli cultural, sports and academic organizations to operate abroad. It has begun to interfere with the ability of Israeli corporations to compete for international contracts. A great many things might get more difficult for Zionist Israel due to an international BDS movement that proves more difficult to stop than is, purportedly, Israel itself.
The author never really carries through with the assertion of the book’s title, that force against Israel is necessary for this long conflict to be brought to a just end. Though he tells us how many policies without force behind them have failed, he makes little effort to show how force might be achieved. Thus he brings no closure to his thesis.
The reader comes away with the feeling that Nathan Thrall is willing to accept a future that, de facto, condemns the Palestinians to permanent oppression and the Israelis (and the rest of the Jews) to a heritage of racism and chauvinism. I am not sure if that is Thrall’s personal position, but the book leads the reader in the direction of such fatalism. I hope more readers than not will remain unconvinced.