The Only Language They Understand

Metropolitan Books  2017


Readers of the New York Review of Books and other intellectual publications know Nathan Thrall to be one of the best-informed, most insightful, and least polemical analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The book’s title announces his bold conclusion: that the status quo will remain in place indefinitely unless the two sides are forced to change it—and no one is prepared to exert such force.

It’s been tried, but not since the 1990s. As Thrall recounts, President Jimmy Carter confronted Israel repeatedly and unrelentingly, threatening at one point to terminate U.S. military assistance. The president briefly had to backpedal in response to accusations that he was “selling Israel out,” but the outcome was the Camp David Accords of September, 1978. In 1991 James Baker, George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State, withheld a $10 billion loan guarantee and brought Israel to the negotiating table in Madrid.

Without pressure, however, neither Israel nor Palestine has much incentive to upset the existing conditions, as Thrall sees it. Israel’s position has only strengthened since the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s. It has greater control of more of the West Bank, including an extensive security barrier, some of which it would have to give up in a peace agreement. Palestinian Authority leaders recognize that foreign aid, and their own jobs, would be at risk if there were a comprehensive peace deal. And their relation to Israel has profoundly changed, “transformed from a protector against an occupying army into an agglomeration of self-interested businessmen securing exclusive contracts from it.”

World leaders may claim that time is short, but as Thrall ruefully remarks, “Claims that peace is within grasp are as overstated as warnings that the perpetually closing window for a two-state solution has nearly shut, or that the occupation of the West Bank will make Israel an international pariah.” Meanwhile, Israel has become a regional power and cordially works with Egypt and Jordan, and quietly with Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Emirates.

Beyond the title essay, this volume updates several important pieces which first appeared in periodicals. Nathan Thrall’s brilliant deconstruction of Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land painstakingly documents the shortcomings of Shavit’s history of Israel and the flaws in Shavit’s reasoning, as well as dissecting the book’s ecstatic reception by American Jews.

Thrall’s acid critique of John Kerry’s diplomatic ministrations—what he calls “faith-based diplomacy”—is also required reading. “Kerry,” deadpans the writer, “found a formula to launch new negotiations: he made inconsistent promises to each side.” He then gives a point-by-point account of the failures of the Obama Administration’s approach, which yielded “not a single achievement.”

Other essays consider the intifadas and other Palestinian protests; the increasing Israeli dominance of East Jerusalem; Hamas; and the growing skepticism about the “two-state solution.” All of them are meticulously documented, hugely informative, and persuasively argued.

Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language They Understand brings unparalleled clarity to the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and is an essential guide to the history, personalities, and ideas behind the conflict.

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