Nathan Thrall is the author of an important new book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. On May 24, Scott Roth and I interviewed him at the Jerusalem Hotel in occupied Jerusalem. Thrall began by relating a central part of his analysis, “Israel-Palestine, the real reason there’s no peace,” which lately appeared in the Guardian.
What I tried to argue in that Guardian piece was that it’s actually irrational for Israel to go for an agreement right now. Basically they’re sitting pretty. They’ve got quiet in the West Bank, they’re playing footsie with the Arab states that had been boycotting them. They’ve got an occupation that’s paid for largely by the U.S. and Europe. They have full security control over the West Bank. They’re on the border with Jordan as they want to be. They’re not facing any kind of public demand to change things. The public protests in recent years are over the price of cottage cheese, right? And so you look at that, and you say to yourself, What Israeli prime minister could rationally uproot tens of thousands of settlers, and say—which is a sine qua non— we’re giving up sovereignty over the Temple Mount, the Haram al Sharif when you have consistent polls showing a majority of Israelis are opposed to that– risking probably the greatest upheaval the society has ever faced, the potential assassination of the prime minister, Jew on Jew violence potentially–
To do all of that, for what? What are you going to gain? And what are you going to avoid by not doing it?
Let’s take it as a choice that a prime minister is making. A, you do this: upheaval, withdrawing from the West Bank, all of your concerns about what happens security-wise after it takes over. You are losing control. You now control Palestinians completely. Do they go to Jordan? Do they not go to Jordan? Who comes in? Who comes out? You’re controlling everything as you want to be. Now you’re going to lose all of that and face enormous political opposition at home. That’s option one. And you know, You’ll get some congratulations and maybe you’ll go to a Nobel Prize ceremony–
Maybe you’ll get shot.
I’m talking about the good part! So– maybe a Nobel Prize. And now the Arab states that refused to do business make it overt, and suddenly you’re now going to have embassies in your country. But it’s small potatoes what you gain from it compared to the cost.
Now look at the pros and cons of the other choice. Just demand that Palestinians accept something that you know they won’t accept, and essentially allow the talks to collapse or cause them to collapse. Now that the talks collapse, what do you face? A pretty good situation. The same one you have today. You hold on to your seat, your whole public blames the Palestinians for the fact that they have collapsed. There are some recriminations from the media– OK. BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] is growing– yes. But what tangible effect has it had on society so far? Really very little. So it’s obvious. It’s irrational for a prime minister to go for the two-state agreement that the whole world is going for.
My book was written in part out of frustration of listening to U.S. officials. There’s a view on the far left that the U.S. is a totally cynical actor, that it’s promoting the peace process literally with the desire of not concluding that process. I’ve just talked to too many sitting U.S. individuals to believe that. But then I would be frustrated by American naivete. I would hear speeches of John Kerry. People said, Kerry’s final speech was so great. What was driving it fundamentally– he was oozing frustration. What was the frustration he was oozing? “Don’t they realize it’s in their own damn interest to take this deal?” And the answer is No, John, they don’t and you’re wrong. It’s not in their interest and moreover, your own government policies are a big reason why it’s not in their interest. It’s so obvious, right? But it felt at the same time like it wasn’t being said.
Tell us about the book.
About a third of the book is one long original essay, about 30,000 plus words, and that’s the first section of the book, it’s the title section of the book, The Only Language They Understand, and it is divided into four parts, and the one I just described to you about diplomacy is the fourth part of that section.
The first three are to demonstrate this historically. First, I take the case study of the Egyptian Israeli peace agreement and I walk through it in detail, narratively telling the story of how the Carter administration got there. When Carter came into office, there are some parallels to Obama. He comes into office immediately after he’s elected, there’s a change of government from Rabin to Begin. And they think, oh my goodness, What can we possibly achieve with the most rightwing Israeli government ever? You had this idealistic Democratic president who was supportive of Palestinians and what he did was he exercised more pressure than any president has since on Israel, and it was his consistent determination and real threats he put against Israel that eventually brought, first of all Sadat to visit in Jerusalem. There’s this whole mythology that the U.S. was irrelevant to Camp David. That it was all about Sadat’s visit. But Sadat himself has said that he visited because of Carter.
So basically I walk through that process and show how actually the use of American leverage– we have a case study here, it worked. I’m also at the same time attacking the myth that the U.S. played no role in bringing about the Egyptian Israeli peace treaty.
Why was Carter a one-term president?
It doesn’t come into the analysis, but I do have quotes from him saying that I am willing to be a one-term president in order to secure Israeli-Egyptian peace.
So I’ve established through this case study that use of American pressure, real pressure, can have huge effects. And the second section of the chapter looks at the history of Israeli withdrawals. Every single territorial withdrawal Israel has done– from Sinai after ’56, multiple withdrawals from Lebanon, not just in 2000 but also during the Carter administration when they invaded and he forced them out twice, and from Gaza of course, and the kind of limited withdrawals that you saw from area A in the West Bank– I demonstrate that in every single instance Israel was forced to withdraw. That it never did it out of its own volition, it never did it out of some higher notion of Israel’s greater long-term interests, it was always getting its arm twisted. Whether that twisting was because the cost of the occupation became too high through violence from Hezbollah or militants in Gaza or the First Intifada made them recalibrate whether it was sustainable to continue the occupation in its then-current form, whether it’s through violence and making the occupation more costly, or whether it’s through severe American pressure.
And so what I try and demonstrate is actually that this famous Israeli aphorism, “Force is the only language they understand,” applies pretty well to the Israeli side as well.
Then the next chapter looks at Palestinian concessions and how the Palestinian national movement moved from rejecting a Jewish presence, rejecting a Zionist presence in Palestine, to slowly over many years, coming to accept a two-state solution on 22 percent of their homeland. And what I show there too is that force was very effective in bringing about ideological concessions on the Palestinian side. They didn’t have territory to give up. So the concessions that they had were ideological ones. But what I show there is how repeated defeats, often military defeats led immediately to ideological concessions that eventually brought them to accepting the two-state solution.
Norman Finkelstein says that the Palestinians are defeated. What about the possibility that the very dispiriting status quo is going to be forever. These people will always be on parcels of land, under the worst conditions, sometimes prison-like, second-class citizenship, circumscribed movement. And following your point, that defeat is meaningful: this is like the Creek Indians in Georgia in the 1830’s?
First of all, I do think that the continuation of this horrible status quo for a long time is absolutely possible and in fact one of the things I’m arguing against is that I feel like a lot of American naivete about this conflict is driven by a false notion of an imminent dangerous choice that Israel is facing: it’s either one state or two, they’re gonna have to choose one or the other, if they don’t they’re going to have one state and they’re going to have to give citizenship to all the Palestinians. In fact, no one is forcing them to give citizenship to the Palestinians. And if you go back and you look, these accusations of Israel being a pariah state: in the discourse that we have today, people infer from it that Israel can’t sustain living this way, under attack. But if you go back to shortly after the first Likud government came to power in ’77, and certainly after the invasion of Lebanon, we’ve been living with the world wagging its finger and not doing much more.
But we are eons away from anybody demanding, Shit or get off the pot, give them citizenship or give them a state. Nobody’s forcing that choice, and part of what allows Americans to be culpable in perpetuating occupation, in financing the Israeli army which is exerting most of its energy on the occupation, in financing the P.A., which allows Israel to pay a much lower price for the occupation– part of what allows that is this American belief that it’s very temporary because very soon Israel is going to have to do one or the other.
But that being said, what makes me think that it’s not actually going to stay permanently in its current form, is that Palestinians do not accept it.
Repeated defeats led them to accept the internationally-agreed consensus position that they were pressured and pressured and pressured to accept, and they finally did. They now feel they’ve made that concession and they’re waiting for the world that had been twisting their arm to say yes to it to live up to its end of the bargain, which is to force the other side now to accept it. And what we’ve seen is that Palestinians when they know that they don’t have the power to liberate themselves– they’re too weak, the power discrepancy is too great– they turn to others. That’s why in the history of the PLO, they had this strategy of entanglement. It was literally to try and entangle Arab states in a conflict with Israel in order to get them to liberate them. And then the Arab states proved themselves to be totally worthless to the Palestinians. So as they came to realize that they had no hope of getting liberated from the Arab states, they slowly came to accept this international consensus position, and since then, since Oslo, we’ve had them now hoping for liberation from the U.S. And what’s happened is that as it’s been confirmed for them that that liberation from outside, from the U.S. in this case now, is not coming, they attempt, even though they know they can’t achieve the full liberation, they attempt to confront the occupation, in order to at least change the situation in some way, to shake things up, to bring the attention of the outside powers to the conflict again to try and do something to resolve it.
And out of those episodes of upheaval, the First Intifada, the tunnel riots of 1996, the Second Intifada, we have seen that Israel adjusts itself and it makes some concessions to the Palestinians as a result. They’re still under occupation. They still don’t have a state. But from the First Intifada they got Israeli withdrawals from Area A and limited autonomy, and from the tunnel riots they got the Hebron agreement, which also called for withdrawal from additional parts of the West Bank. And from the Second Intifada they got the withdrawal from Gaza. And this has all come at a huge price to them, and ultimately they can’t really sustain it long enough, to get what they really want. But they are able through these bouts of confrontation with Israel every few years to get something, and I see this iterative process of: Palestinian confrontation, Israeli concession and readjustment of the occupation, a period of exhaustion and quiescence, confrontation again, new tweaking of the occupation to try and appease the Palestinians. And out of that, trying to project into the future, you can imagine that Palestinians are going to have a better situation than the one they have today, even though that’s not predicting statehood or sovereignty.
Can you explain why F.W. de Klerk in South Africa did what he did in contrast to your analysis of the Israeli leaders?
I just don’t know the South African history well enough.
Scott Roth: What if anything did Palestinians get out of the last few Gaza wars since Cast Lead?
What Hamas I think would argue that they got above all is simply keeping the territory. If they had been weaker, and Israel thought it would be easier for them to reoccupy it and simply put the P.A. in place, Israel would have done it. And the fact that they’ve kept it as a semi-autonomous independent entity that has not been reoccupied by Israel, they would regard that as the greatest achievement that they have had through those conflicts. And to this very day despite all of those wars, the existing Israeli policy is as Netanyahu said in the Knesset when they were fighting over the state comptroller’s report over the 2014 war, he said I don’t want to reoccupy Gaza and that is the overwhelming position of the security establishment, despite the fact that the defense minister says other things. And that is still pretty much the policy: we are ready to keep Hamas in place, they’re too strong for us to do otherwise. So I think that the fact that the Palestinians a, got through the Second Intifada, that they got their first piece of territory, they liberated the first piece of territory from Mandatory Palestine, is one of the most consequential developments in this conflict since 1967. The fact that they’ve held on to it is no small achievement.
By the way there’s a great Efraim Halevy quote on this from the last year that I have in my book. All this talk about disarmament, Hamas disarming, and then we’ll allow economic development, we’ll give them a port– They’d be crazy to do it. Of course, the second they drop their weapons, we have no interest in them whatsoever. We’ll take over. So he says we’ll take over, we’ll slaughter them. I can’t remember the quote exactly. [The original quote: “Imagine that Hamas does disperse its military units and they lay down their arms. What will Israel do if it doesn’t kill them? What incentive will we have to negotiate with them if they are no longer a threat to us?”]
If your book is widely read and it has policy influence, what do you want to achieve?
I think the most basic point that I’m making is that the U.S. is a major supporter of the status quo, and the status quo is very comfortable for Israel. And if there’s any chance of solving this conflict, it’s through changing incentives. Unless you do that, it’s hopeless, and so at the very least I want the effect of the book to be a greater recognition that the continued U.S. policy of essentially supporting the status quo while doing lip service to wanting to change it and also engaging each new administration in new rounds of talks is highly hypocritical. Beyond that I want people to understand that it’s within the U.S.’s power to change the incentive structure and get a deal if the U.S. wants it enough.
What do people mean by an imposed solution?
An imposed solution means severe U.S. pressure. That’s what it means. And it’s possible. And the reason everybody talks about it and says we would never do it is no one devotes this much energy to denouncing an imaginary threat. It’s a real threat. The U.S. is capable of doing it. If the U.S. weren’t capable of doing it you wouldn’t have to denounce an imposed solution left and right.
Roth: Do you think with current U.S. politics it’s possible?
No; in principle, no. But you tell me, Are things changing in the U.S.? What do you make of the Brookings poll that shows that 60 percent of Democrats are in favor of – it’s vague language– but some form of sanctions? Or some other wording and they’re against settlements specifically. Still, the odds of Bernie Sanders having become president were not small. Now I’m skeptical he would have radically changed things.
Roth: He can’t even bring himself to say BDS is not the worst thing in the world.
Is there a hopeful piece to your book?
Yes. Because at the end of the day what I’m saying is, right now we’re at peak despair and every analyst will use the one-state reality to describe the present situation, which I agree with wholly. But they’ll also leap from that, many of them, and say one state is inevitable. And I’m arguing very much against that and the reason why is simple. Israel holds all the power. There will not be a one-state solution unless Israel wants it, and Israel does not want it for sure. You know the whole point of Zionism is for them to have their own Jewish state and they’ll lose that with the one-state solution, and so long as Israelis don’t want it, it’s not happening. Now what I’m arguing that is hopeful in the book is in fact that through bloodshed and through pressure, and through coercion, both parties have steadily made progress toward the two-state vision that the whole international community endorses, and it’s hard to remember that when everybody’s talking about one state today. But the fact is if you look on the ground, first of all, from ’67 to ’87, that was much more of a one-state reality than we have today, right? Because people were traveling everywhere, in both directions. Now they’ve got a foreign ministry in Ramallah, a big beautiful giant building, they have their several intelligence services, and diplomats in other countries.
There’s no denying that it looks like two separate entities today. Of course, Palestinians are not sovereign. They don’t have their own state, but the trend has been toward greater separation, first of all on the ground and second, even in the positions on both sides you see both sides moving steadily toward this vision. So for example, in the ’80s, there was nobody on the Israeli side who was in favor of Palestinian statehood. Rabin didn’t even say he was in favor of Palestinian statehood– the patron saint of the peace movement. Read his last speech to the Knesset trying to promote the second Oslo 2 agreement, just a month before he died. It sounds like Bar-Ilan [Netanyahu speech on two states in 2009]. His positions and Bibi’s are very, very similar. In the late 90’s Shimon Peres was against Palestinian statehood, and there were a couple in the Labor Party who were for it, but the Labor Party itself was against it. Now we have a Likud prime minister, it’s cynical, but he at least said it. Israelis have been saying it. Sharon was the first one who did it, during the Second Intifada. That’s no coincidence. As I argue in the book, there were other concessions that were made during the Second Intifada. Not just the withdrawal from Gaza, but Sharon– for the first time an Israeli prime minister said he was in favor of Palestinian statehood. For the first time it became official U.S. policy to promote Palestinian statehood under [George W.] Bush.
Roth: I would disagree somewhat and say it’s semantics. The Palestinian state that Netanyahu is talking about at best it’s autonomy, which is what Rabin was saying. Or even the Labor Party.
I’m not disputing that about Netanyahu. But let’s leave Netanyahu out of it. The Israeli public– the majority of Israelis have come around on the Clinton parameters. If you poll them—the basic outline of it still doesn’t give Palestinians full 100 percent of the territory, the territory of the West Bank and Gaza, but Israelis have come around to at least the price of what a two state agreement would entail. And again you saw that when the violence erupted in Jerusalem, the initial wave after the 2014 war, and then it picked up again in the fall of 2015, you had polls showing the highest-ever number of Israelis wanting to pull out of East Jerusalem. And the question that the pollster asked– of course the Israelis who answered it interpreted it not to include the Old City, I’m sure. But nevertheless there was this peak support for getting the fuck out when the cost becomes too high. And so I think it’s discouraging that it’s going to take a lot more suffering for us to get to where I think it’s possible to get, which I think is a two-state outcome, but I think this is a hopeful element because I do see a trend of our moving steadily in that direction
Where are you from, what called you to this material?
I grew up in California, being very interested in American politics. I didn’t care so much about international politics and I knew next to nothing about Israel, and it was only later when I got a master’s at Columbia and I finished and I thought what on earth am I going to go do. I was thinking of becoming a journalist but I didn’t know where, and then the Shalit kidnaping happened about a week after I graduated and then the 2006 Lebanon war broke out and I hopped on a plane and I moved here and I started writing for the Jerusalem Post and I started taking Arabic and Hebrew classes at Tel Aviv University. I lived here for a year, and I was trying to get things published in New York and I realized I was going to hit a cul de sac staying here. I wanted to write big long pieces and I was just finding it very difficult. So my grandfather was sick and I took a plane back to visit him and there was an ad for the inaugural year of a writing program in New York based at CUNY, and it was headed by Andre Aciman and I applied for it, I got a fellowship… Then I worked as an editor at The New York Review of Books… I worked there for about a year and I was kind of chafing at having a desk job and I asked Bob Silvers if I could write a piece based in the West Bank and so while I was still working there, I came here on a reporting trip and I wrote a piece that was published shortly after I left the New York Review on Fayyadism and on the U.S. training of Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, and it was called “Our Man in Palestine,” and in a way it was poking a hole in what was becoming a very trendy bipartisan issue in the United States, which was the support for the Fayyad state-building program. Basically from there I got hired by Rob Malley to work for the International Crisis Group, and he asked me where I wanted to go if I could go anywhere in the middle east, and I said Gaza. So I went to Gaza and I lived there for about a month and a half and did some reporting on Salafi jihadis, and it was a trial period. My girlfriend now my wife was pregnant in New York, and the Crisis Group liked what I wrote, and they hired me full time, and six weeks after my daughter was born we moved to Jerusalem.
You’ve cited poll numbers in the States and in Israel. What is the meaning of rising numbers of Palestinians who according to Khalil Shikaki’s polls, the young are beginning to favor a one-state outcome.
Well it’s roughly a third on each side, Israelis and Palestinians, who say they would be in favor of it in some way. But at the end of the day even if 100 percent of Palestinians were in favor of a one-state solution– which we are miles away from that, right? That’s the last thing that the Palestinian national movement and the PLO is ready to embrace. Still, let’s say that somehow there’s a coup and a revolution and these youth take over. So then you have 100 percent of the Palestinians in favor of one state. I do not think that the next thing that happens is that the rest of the world says, “Give them citizenship.” The next thing that happens is that if people start to support their demands, then Israel does something very simple. It announces a unilateral withdrawal to the wall or to something along those lines, and it will have a U.N. Security Council resolution and every nation of the world lining up and saying say Israel wants peace and it’s done its part and there still has to be a negotiation over the border and settlements and this, that and the other, but we’re putting in an international peacekeeping force and blah blah blah. So I don’t think it’s quite the threat that people paint it to be.
The number of settlers east of the wall– is it 80,000?
No. It’s more.
Leave aside the Green Line and Jerusalem, what sort of bloodshed is entailed in getting those settlers to go back?
That’s one of the reasons that I said that the status quo is so preferable for Israel. That’s one of the things that Israel greatly wants to avoid. At the same time I think you could make a case that the degree of bloodshed from those groups, settlers who are east of the wall, is overstated. That the number of true radicals there who will fight against the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] is very small. Tactically there are ways to deal with it. You can essentially bring out all of the ones who are willing to go, and then you leave those people isolated. Then you shut off their electricity, you cut off their water, you don’t have to do a two-week operation, it can be a very slow process where you bring them out and pluck them off one by one. Let’s keep in mind that there were lots of dire predictions before the Gaza pullout and it went very smoothly.
Now in terms of the question of withdrawing the settlers, we have to acknowledge that there are a few different possibilities. One of them is that you have a final status agreement in which they are permitted to stay. It’s important to note that the Beilin-Abu Mazen agreement of 1995, it’s called an agreement even though it was never implemented. And it’s not a binding agreement, but it was their attempt at a final status agreement. It allowed the settlers to stay. And it’s conceivable that you could have a deal in which settlers were allowed to stay and maybe conditions on their staying would be so onerous that you’d get rid of 90 percent of them. So it would say you have to be a citizen of the state of Palestine, they have jurisdiction, you can’t live in exclusive communities, etc. Then an Israeli prime minister can say I didn’t force a single one out though in fact the conditions under which they have to stay is such that most of them go.
So one outcome is that they’re allowed to stay in one form, and then another is that you have this withdrawal. But the withdrawal as I mentioned could be done in such a way that it would not be an impossible task for Israel.
You’ve had barbs for American naivete. Can you elaborate, which arguments are fairyland or self deluding?
I think the most fundamental one is this belief that it’s possible to persuade Israel that it’s in its own interest to do the deal that they’ve been refusing and it’s just merely a matter of being persuasive enough: it’s obvious to everyone that of course they have got to do it in the end. And one of the things that I argue in the book is even if you could demonstrate to Israel that in the end you’re going to be forced to do it– in the end BDS is going to grow so strong, there are going to be sanctions against your banks, and you’re going to have no choice but to do it– that’s going to be 20 years from now. Because obviously the pace of this isn’t faster than that. And they have every incentive to wait until that moment comes and not to do it today. So I think that the most fundamental thing is that belief that both sides want peace and it’s just a bunch of strings of bad luck and the stars haven’t been aligned correctly that have caused all these failures, rather than, Structurally the whole thing is built to keep up the status quo rather than to reach an agreement.
When I first came here in 2006, a Palestinian shopkeeper in the Old City told me, Palestinians are miserable, and so are the Israelis. That became a mantra for me: both peoples are immiserated by the situation. One revelation of this trip for me is: the Israelis aren’t immiserated.
It’s like the Stanley Milgram experiment. They turn up the dial, but they can live with it. They hear the people screaming, but they carry on.
I think that that’s another element of American naivete about the conflict. There’s a lack of understanding about how comfortable the situation is for Israel, and hearing the screaming on the other side of the wall– they barely hear that. And if they do hear it, they’ve been told that it’s their own damn fault. It’s their intransigence, their demands are unreasonable. Even though they’ve accepted the position of the international community and actually have made concessions on top of that, saying, we’ll have a demilitarized state, we’ll allow settlement blocs to stay, etc. So Palestinians are in fact demanding less than international law affords them. I’d say 95 percent of Israelis are not aware of that.
When will your work be done here? Will you move back to the States?
I have no idea. I do already have another idea of a book that’s here.
Do you have any scorn for people in the West who don’t tell how bad it is out here? I get angry at liberal Zionists because I think it’s apartheid and J Street temporizes about that; and there’s a special place in hell for people who temporize about reality. Do you share any of that?
For me I direct it more at the policymakers and analysts who write in that way. I haven’t met with J Street when they come here, I don’t direct it at them, but certainly you have some saying that Trump ought to visit Rawabi, as if Rawabi is representative or indicative of what’s going on in the West Bank. You know about Rawabi– it was kind of the crown jewel of the Fayyad plan, to create these expensive modern apartments. I think that they were consulting with Moshe Safdie who created Modi’in. So it’s the notion that basically the West Bank is thriving and that this is the path forward. For other people who come to the West Bank, they’ll talk about how easy it was for them to go from Jerusalem to Ramallah. But it was easy for them because they were in an Israeli car with Israeli plates and as far as the soldiers were concerned when they were passing through they were headed for a settlement.
Yes, I do feel that a lot of people are misrepresenting reality, but at the same time they’re probably led on very limited tours, so they’re probably being taken from Jerusalem to Rawabi and they’re not really looking at H2 in Hebron.