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The failure of Ponzi scheme diplomacy: A review of Nathan Thrall’s ‘The Only Language They Understand’

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Nathan Thrall is the It Boy of Israel/Palestine analysis, an expert whose message suits the moment. His new book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, comes endorsed by Leon Wieseltier and Elliott Abrams as well as Rashid Khalidi, a confluence that seems impossible, until you realize that Thrall’s work reflects what has become at this late hour the respectable consensus: that Israel is mostly to blame for the present impasse, and progress depends on Washington’s taking a different tack. Just what should be done remains vague, in Thrall’s book and in discussion generally, in large part because the U.S. role is exempted from realistic analysis. If, as Thrall contends, only force—understood to include popular pressure and economic sanctions, as well as violence—has a record of drawing concessions from the parties, then the question is, who will force the U.S. to stop perpetuating the conflict, its policy for the last 50 years? Until some tectonic shift in global power, the only possible answer is us. But writing too polite to name the enemy, or too enmeshed in the establishment to recognize it, seems unlikely to bring about the necessary change in consciousness.

The book consists of previously published dispatches from the region, introduced by a long historical essay that lays out the argument. Thrall’s command of the recent facts is impressive, but his grasp of the past is weaker, and his first chapter misses the forest of the conflict for the trees of diplomatic intrigue. The hero of his story is the thirty-ninth president, a Southern governor who somehow found the wherewithal to strong-arm Israel’s prime minister into making peace with an Arab neighbor and addressing the status of the Palestinians in the occupied territories:

When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in January 1977, no one expected that he would quickly obtain two of the most significant agreements in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict: the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, and the Framework for Peace in the Middle East, which served as the blueprint for the 1993 Oslo Accord.

These agreements were significant all right, but if Thrall understood their significance he’d be far less enthusiastic about Carter’s “success.” There’s a reason a treaty was concluded between Israel and Egypt, and persists amidst the wreckage of Mideast peacemaking, and it isn’t Jimmy Carter’s unique virtue: unlike Palestinian statehood, this was in the interests of the regional hegemon (Israel) and its superpower patron (us). Indeed Camp David was a ruinous development for the Palestinians, dooming them to indefinite occupation and accelerated colonization in the West Bank, and a murderous onslaught in Lebanon, even as it formally acknowledged their “legitimate rights.” This makes it a strange precedent for forcing compromise in Israel and Palestine.

To recognize that, we have to see past the rhetoric and maneuvering that Thrall recounts in such detail. Carter called for almost total Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, spoke sympathetically of the need for a Palestinian “homeland,” and moved towards engagement with the PLO. In Thrall’s words, he “squeezed Israel harder on the Palestinian issue than any American president before or since.” Why did he do it? Thrall quotes from his memoirs:

Since I had made our nation’s commitment to human rights a central tenet of our foreign policy, it was impossible for me to ignore the very serious problems on the West Bank. The continued deprivation of Palestinian rights was not only used as the primary lever against Israel, but was contrary to the basic moral and ethical principles of both our countries.

Carter always fancied himself a great humanitarian, but as president he was a faithful steward of imperial interests—he lent his name, Monroe-style, to the doctrine that the U.S. would use military force to maintain primacy in the Middle East—and this passage perhaps reveals more of his mindset than he intended. Carter means that Palestinian suffering was a tool for those in the Arab world who opposed normalizing relations with the Jewish state; but a “lever against Israel” is precisely what the Palestinians wound up being for Carter as well. All the pressure he exerted culminated not in a comprehensive Geneva Conference but in a land-for-peace deal between Israel and Egypt, and the latter’s conversion into a U.S. client. At best, the Palestinians were an afterthought at Camp David; at worst, their fate reflected the old adage that if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

The cover of “The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine”

In part, this was due to domestic political dynamics. Thrall describes how the Zionist lobby in the U.S., in coordination with the Israelis, attacked the administration’s joint statement of principles issued with the Soviet Union, co-chair of the Geneva Conference, and halted the momentum towards a summit where Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian rights would both be on the agenda. But when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt made his celebrated trip to Jerusalem, spurred on by Carter’s apparent attack of impotence, he was really nudging U.S. policy back on the track laid down by Henry Kissinger: “ensure that the Europeans and Japanese did not get involved in the diplomacy… keep the Soviets out of the diplomatic arena… enable Israel to deal separately with each of its neighbors.”

Egypt was obviously the most eligible neighbor. The messianic Sadat arrayed himself in the Arab cause, including the plight of the Palestinians, but his objective was limited and his strategy cynical: he wanted to regain the Sinai, and joining the U.S. camp was the only way he saw to do it. He’d made no secret of his intentions. In 1971 he declared his willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel on the 1967 borders. He was rebuffed, because Israel thought itself invincible and Kissinger agreed. In 1972 Sadat expelled Soviet military advisors, a clear come-on to Washington, but still got nowhere. So in 1973 he teamed with Hafez al-Assad of Syria to regain their territory by force. They came close enough to give Israel the worst shock in its history, bringing the superpowers towards the nuclear brink. Suddenly, Sadat’s overtures could not be so rudely ignored.

Thrall notes that this two-front attack “alerted [Israel] to the necessity of peace with Egypt,” the largest and most powerful Arab country, but by omitting the relevant background he deprives Camp David of its geopolitical context. In the words of Egyptian foreign minister Muhammed Ibrahim Kamel, whose clear-eyed view of the talks led him to resign before the signing ceremony, “Here we have the United States president, without equivocation or ambiguity, coming up with the idea of concluding a strategic American-Egyptian-Israeli alliance,” which is of course exactly what happened.

That quote is found in Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, which Thrall cites more than once while ignoring the most revealing bits. For instance, Sadat’s instructions to Carter on day one of the summit, which was officially supposed to work towards a solution for the Palestinians: “Israel has to withdraw from my land. Anything else, my good friend, you can do what you want to, and I’ll agree to it.” Or Carter’s response when Kamel complained that the agreement taking shape failed to include Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza, and Arab Jerusalem: “‘It seems to me you fail to realize my aim,’ Carter said icily.” Or, most revealing of all, what Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin crowed to a friend as soon as the ink was dry: “I have just signed the greatest document in Jewish history!”

Begin had spent the entire summit acting like he was back in the gulag, a masterful performance, since in fact he was giving up a desert in order to sideline Egypt and gain freedom of action elsewhere—above all the West Bank, but also Iraq (preemptively bombed in 1981) and Lebanon (invaded and occupied in 1982). All that was demanded of him on behalf of the Palestinians was a fig leaf, a proposal for “autonomy,” as opposed to self-determination, presented as an end to Israeli military government and its replacement by “home rule” in the West Bank and Gaza, after five years. Security would remain Israel’s purview. Thrall gives this transparent ruse a reverent introduction: “Carter didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to receive from Begin the concessions that would form the basis of his historic achievement at Camp David.”

Only by Begin’s clenched logic did this scheme amount to a concession, but accepting Israeli leaders’ shenanigans at face value is something of a pattern for Thrall. He even lingers over the ludicrous notion of granting Israeli citizenship to Palestinians in the territories—”one of the most interesting aspects of Begin’s proposal,” we are told, for which he gave “essentially a moral” argument. Thrall quotes Begin’s sententious pseudo-reasoning: “And now I want to explain why we proposed a free choice of citizenship, including Israeli citizenship. The answer is: Fairness… We never wanted to be like Rhodesia.” Rhodesia “never wanted to be like Rhodesia” either, in the sense of a byword for historical infamy, but it’s a consequence of maintaining a certain kind of regime. The real reason Begin included Israeli citizenship in his proposal is that he never meant a word of it anyhow, so why not? It’s good PR, even four decades later.

Thrall is not completely in the dark here. Discussing the Oslo Accords in a subsequent section of the same chapter, he states the truth quite plainly: “the agreement was based, at Rabin’s insistence, on the 1978 Camp David Accord, which itself was a modified version of Begin’s 1977 autonomy plan, designed for the specific purpose not of establishing Palestinian self-determination but of thwarting it.” Concessions have become subterfuge, in under ten pages. You could try to explain this discrepancy with reference to the nuances of diplomatic concepts and language, but a more convincing reason is that Thrall needs to overstate Begin’s offering in his account of Camp David in order to make his argument work. For Thrall, the summit is a case study of American pressure and Israeli compromise; that there was no compromise with respect to the Palestinians, only gesture, is rather devastating. “In fairly short order,” Thrall concludes, “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.” A neat story, but the truth is that Begin seized the opportunity to build settlements, integrating choice parts of the West Bank with Israel, and amplify the occupation’s repressiveness, while stymying negotiations.

Thrall avoids these awkward details, explaining only that the Framework for Peace in the Middle East “was not finalized or implemented in Carter’s time, but it, too, proved to be of great importance.” This is because it led to Oslo, which “has defined and circumscribed nearly every aspect of Palestinian-Israeli relations from 1993 until the present.” That’s true, but it hardly recommends Oslo as a diplomatic achievement. Thrall’s occasional enthusiasm for the Accords (again he is contradictory) is puzzling in light of his preface, where he lists the sins of the U.S. and Europe: “quashing any hint of Palestinian confrontation, promising an imminent negotiated solution, facilitating security cooperation, developing the institutions of a still-unborn Palestinian state, and providing bounteous economic and military assistance”—in a word, Oslo. Perhaps he means that these measures, allegedly temporary, have become counterproductive, but critics at the time the agreement was signed were able to perceive clearly how it would function.

These inconsistencies seem to derive from a view of any diplomatic development, however debased, as somehow positive, another stage in a teleological process moving inexorably towards the partition of Palestine, as the UN intended in 1947. So even if autonomy took fifteen years to bear fruit, it was justified by the territorial gains of Oslo; and if Oslo “allowed Israel not to end the occupation but repackage it, from direct to indirect control,” it nonetheless took “seemingly irresistible steps toward Palestinian self-determination.” This is diplomacy as a kind of Ponzi scheme, in which initial dividends come at the cost of no ultimate payout, and the truth is deferred with each round of investment by a new group of victims. The truth is that the Zionist project is an ideological zero-sum game: from the perspective of Israel’s governing elite, a Palestinian state would negate the Jewish one. It isn’t just that Israel prefers the status quo to a painful compromise; the country is still in the process of consolidating itself. The endpoint of state formation has yet to be reached. As Benjamin Netanyahu told a group of young supporters in 2013, “What matters is that we continue to head straight toward our goal, even if one time we walk right and another time we walk left.” (“When one of the Likudniks asked about peace talks with the Palestinians,” The New Yorker reported, “Netanyahu is said to have replied, as the audience laughed, ‘About the—what?'”)

For the Palestinians, that leaves the U.S., which has mostly backed Israel in its weaponized diplomacy, with a few exceptions. Why should it be otherwise? One question Thrall never addresses is what interest the U.S. has in Palestinian self-determination. In the Middle East we prefer that (non-Jewish) populations be ruled by friendly despots (friendly to us and to Israel, that is). When we invaded Iraq to replace an enemy despot with democracy, we had in mind a client state with a veneer of popular accountability. Something like this is already in place in the West Bank; Thrall writes about it knowledgeably in the book’s third section, “Collaboration.” Gaza is a different story, but thanks to el-Sisi Hamas is contained, leaving only the sort of massive humanitarian disaster we’re perfectly willing to tolerate. Individuals up to and including John Kerry may wish to ameliorate this state of affairs, in part for their own prestige, but power is a system, and policy is an aggregate output of its components (the Pentagon, Congress, the “intelligence community”). The Palestinians have very little pull in this equation. Israel, on the other hand, has been treated as a strategic asset since the Nixon administration. Why force it to compromise with an enemy it considers existential?

“There’s a view on the left that the U.S. is a totally cynical actor,” Thrall told Mondoweiss recently, “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.” Setting aside the value of self-interested testimonies, the question isn’t who wants peace, but what peace means. If the Palestinians can be compelled to surrender what’s left of their rights and live quietly under Israeli domination, that would be an ideal outcome for the U.S. It’s precisely what Bill Clinton tried to bring about in collaboration with Ehud Barak at the second Camp David summit, which Thrall barely discusses. (Robert Malley, who hired Thrall to work for the International Crisis Group, was a member of the U.S. team there.) If the Palestinians prove resistant, then Israel has the right to crush their resistance, using our most advanced military hardware, until they learn their lesson. It’s hard to imagine cynicism more total.

Part of the problem is that Thrall underestimates U.S.-Israeli brutality. His account of how Ariel Sharon responded to the Second Intifada upon becoming prime minister is jaw-dropping:

Contrary to all expectations of the man known as the father of the settlement movement—who had once demanded that a general be fired for saying that the First Intifada could not be defeated by military means alone—Sharon was prepared to make immediate concessions to halt the fighting. According to then US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, “Sharon offered a freeze on all settlement activity for six months if Arafat would make a serious attempt to stop the intifada violence.”

The background here is former senator George Mitchell’s report on the intifada, which called for a cessation of hostilities and a halt to settlement construction. For a realistic appraisal of Sharon’s reaction, we turn from Indyk the former AIPAC employee to Israeli military historian Ahron Bregman:

The prime minister responded swiftly by declaring, on 22 May, a unilateral ceasefire, pledging that the army would only shoot in self-defense; Sharon probably concluded that the Palestinians would proceed with their insurgency anyway, which would enable him to blame Arafat for the violence. […] Indeed, although officially embracing the Mitchell Report, at the same time Sharon also advised the army’s Chief of Staff, General Shaul Mofaz, “to strike the Palestinians everywhere…simultaneously. The Palestinians should wake up every morning to find out that twelve of them are dead …”

Bregman, a former captain in the IDF, adds that Sharon probably knew the uprising could not be suppressed by force, “and by demanding the army kill scores of Palestinians he gave them a green light to act fiercely which, he must have realized, would only feed the vicious circle of violence.” As the intifada continued, Sharon more than once broke a ceasefire by assassinating a Palestinian militant, resuming the sanguinary spiral in which he spent his entire career.

Thrall thinks the Palestinians have notched significant achievements through violence. He makes the interesting observation that suicide bombings and bloody confrontations seemed to hasten Israel’s handing over of territory in the 1990s. But this contrarianism cannot overcome the Second Intifada. As Bregman points out, the IDF deliberately overreacted to the initial riots of the uprising, trying to draw return fire and pull the Palestinians into a battle they could not win. The strategy predated Sharon’s premiership, but he escalated the tactics, moving from helicopter gunships to warplanes and artillery. And it worked, with devastating effects on Palestinian society. The IDF established deterrence in the West Bank when it reinvaded like a vandal army in 2002. What did the Palestinians gain—the wall? After years as a war zone, Gaza is hopelessly isolated, a reverse Potemkin village displaying Palestinian life in its “natural” state, ostensibly uninhibited by Israeli occupation: immiserated, overcrowded, prone to violence, incapable of self-government. This was Sharon’s grand design, and though Thrall does call the Gaza disengagement a “maneuver…undertaken in order to avoid something worse”, he buries in a footnote the scandalous rationale offered by Sharon’s adviser, Dov Weissglas, omitting the worst part:

The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians… we received [from the Americans] a no-one-to-talk-to certificate. The certificate says: (1) There is no one to talk to. (2) As long as there is no one to talk to, the geographic status quo remains intact. (3) The certificate will be revoked only when this-and-this happens—when Palestine becomes Finland. (4) See you then and shalom.

Weissglas did not need to add that military pressure and economic strangulation would prevent Palestine from ever becoming peaceful and prosperous.

Sharon was the master builder of the status quo, and Netanyahu, who voted for the disengagement four times before publicly opposing it, is merely executing the general’s plan. Thrall dismisses the claim that this territorial reality represents a nascent single-state solution awaiting political reform: “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.” In terms of the two societies, he’s right: Rabin initiated the split, and Sharon completed it. He’s also right that Israel will never voluntarily surrender Jewish sovereignty. But he’s wrong that “Israel and Palestine have been inching steadily towards partition” ever since Begin’s autonomy “plan.” Those years of extended negotiation and deferred implementation were not idle: the Palestinians now inhabit a fragmented dystopia, policed by their own within and surrounded by others without, cut off from each other by settlements, bypass roads, and military bases. This isn’t partition, but apartheid. And it did not come about by accident. However good the intentions of certain officials, or bad their consciences after retirement, the U.S. preferred subsidizing this process to forcing its henchman into recognizing indigenous rights.

The salient analysis of force in this conflict is that violence is essential to state formation and imperial management both. Israel developed as a settler colony under the umbrella of great-power protection. The British endorsed the Zionist project in 1917, broke Palestinian resistance during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, and stood by during the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Apart from strategic considerations, about which policymakers may disagree, there is a natural affinity between Western imperialism and a European colonization movement. More broadly, power sympathizes with power. Israel’s military strength soon drew interest from the U.S., which considered it a Cold War counterweight to Russian-backed Egypt and Syria. After most Arab countries joined the coalition against Saddam Hussein, the Bush Sr. administration deemed it necessary to coerce Israel into attending negotiations in Madrid at which the Palestinians would be present, as part of a joint delegation with Jordan. The withholding of loan guarantees that brought Yitzhak Shamir to the table “was the last time the United States applied pressure of this sort,” Thrall notes. It’s also the only example that directly involved the Palestinians, and it was a consequence not of concern for their rights but of an effort to organize the region by force.

This ongoing imperative is why Barack Obama showered Israel with money and weapons after Netanyahu spent eight years defying him on the Palestinian question: Israel remains central to U.S. planning in a region in flames, set alight by our militarism. Given these dynamics, it isn’t enough to speak of “conditioning aid on changes in behavior, a standard tool of diplomacy that officials deem unthinkable in this case.” We have to ask why this is deemed unthinkable. “Through pressure on the parties,” Thrall argues, “a peaceful partition of Palestine is achievable.” That’s been true since the 1970s, when the U.S. started vetoing Security Council resolutions calling for just this outcome. The problem is that force—in its pure sense, not diplomatic pressure but organized violence—is, if not the only language we understand, certainly our native tongue.

Eamon Murphy

Eamon Murphy is a journalist in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @epmurph.

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9 Responses

  1. JosephA on June 7, 2017, 10:59 am

    Eamon, thank you for this comprehensive and thoughtful review. The United States of America is the reason this conflict continues. There isn’t a mythical age-old problem between Jews and their neighbors in the Middle East, because middle eastern Jews lived in peace throughout the Middle East for ages. It seems this problem has a lot more to do with the European Jews (long harassed by their Christian neighbors) embarking on an racist, imperial project fueled by PTSD.

    • Maghlawatan on June 8, 2017, 1:20 am

      Zionism is trauma. And trauma is not rational. Eventally Israelis will regret the peace deals ignored and sabotaged. But groupthink is so alluring. Especially in Hebrew for chosen people with God in the background.

  2. John O on June 7, 2017, 5:26 pm

    The photo says a lot. Sadat looks at the clasped hands, but without any sign of happiness on his face; Carter tries to make eye contact with Sadat with a “Good boy!” smile on his face; Begin looks at the camera with the mirthless grin of the sociopath trying hard to mimic human emotion.

  3. annie on June 7, 2017, 7:17 pm

    excellent read, thank you so much Eamon Murphy.

  4. gamal on June 7, 2017, 8:48 pm

    reminded me of Stephen Green Living by the Sword: America and Israel in the middle east 1968-87


    Taking Sides Americas Secret Relations with a militant Israel.

  5. Maghlawatan on June 8, 2017, 1:13 am

    Shulman is very good. He wasn’t educated in Israel so he knows what Judaism is. I honestly think Israel should drop the Jewish holidays. Why celebrate defiance of the tyrant in a tyranny ?

    Systemic cruelty inflicted over generations on innocent populations will eventually exact a price—probably a terrible price. It is an illusion to believe that large-scale eruptions of violence can be controlled, or their costs and results easily sustained.

    Perhaps “rational” is not the word we want. A policy driven mostly by greed, and also to no little extent by sheer malice, such as Israel’s, may be intelligible, but that doesn’t make it rational, and it is certainly far from wise. 

  6. John Turnbull on June 8, 2017, 2:58 pm

    Thrall isn’t necessarily enthused about Carter’s success with regard to Palestinians — obviously the author of the Carter Doctrine was not primarily concerned with human rights for Palestinians at that time. Surely Thrall’s point is more limited: Carter pushed and Israel backed up.

    Had a treaty with Egypt not been signed, we”d all be living in a different world, and I’m not sure many Palestinians would be here with us.

    Thanks for the rest of the review. I really appreciate the depth of your background on this.

  7. Maghlawatan on June 9, 2017, 5:24 am

    John McDonnell is UK Labour party finance spokesman. They just delivered a stunning election performance. He said “hope always wins over fear. Kindness and generosity win over selfish greed. Solidarity will always succeed. ” Israel is a moral clusterfuck

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