The Only Lan­guage They Understand

Nathan Thrall
  • Review
By – May 18, 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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