Ever since Jewish migration to Palestine started between 1882 and 1903 as part of the Zionist project, conflict between Arabs and Zionists has been prevalent in discussions of literature on Palestine-Israel. Wars between Arab countries and Israel have been followed by peace treaties being signed by Israel with Egypt and Jordan; they were welcomed by those who believe that the Palestine-Israel issue can be solved by peaceful means.
However, the question of how the main problem can be solved without bloodshed still puzzles researchers, analysts, diplomats and politicians. Nathan Thrall is one of those analysts, and he has been covering events in the occupied Palestinian territories since 2010 on behalf of the International Crisis Group. Looking at the past five decades of occupation, he suggests in this easily-read book that the only way to reach a peaceful agreement is to coerce the parties involved directly in the issue; as he puts it, to “force compromise”.
The book consists of articles that he wrote for the New York Review of Books, and he focuses mainly on diplomatic perspectives of peacemaking in a critical way. He sets out why he thinks that the involvement of the US in Palestine-Israel peace negotiations is not going to end Israel’s occupation due to the absence of coercion on both sides. This was the main reason that he chose “The Only Language They Understand…” as his book’s title; he has heard it said many times from both parties. His main argument follows this connotation with an extra critical view of the diplomatic efforts of the world powers which neglect the importance of forcing sides to compromise to reach a deal and focusing solely on peace. Indirectly, he asks whether peace can be achieved in peaceful ways.
Thrall has structured the book with five categories, starting with a historical perspective from the time of former US President Jimmy Carter’s involvement in the issue. Carter, he says, was the most influential president in terms of outmanoeuvring Israel towards compromise. However, his efforts were in vain and not welcomed by the Israelis, who claimed that Carter was, ‘’Imposing a Palestinian State on Israel.’’ (p19)
The reviewer’s approach does not ignore the domestic dynamics of America in line with US-Israel politics. He cites Carter’s meeting with Moshe Dayan to force Israel to accept compromise as an example of how inner dynamics can even force the president of a superpower to cancel decisions and focus on a political career instead.
Of all the US Presidents involved during the period in question, Thrall is most critical of Barack Obama. He points out that although his predecessors Carter, Reagan, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush couldn’t achieve peace, they at least inched the parties towards an understanding of a solution or compromise. Obama, though, gave up his demand for a settlement freeze in 2009 and his envoys instead put pressure on the Palestinians to accept inconsistent preconditions for negotiations: during the talks Israel could continue building illegal settlements in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and Palestinians had to refrain from exercising their right to join multilateral institutions. The US said it would consider the latter to be an act of ‘’bad faith’’ unlike, it must be said, Israeli settlement construction. (p213)
Thrall is critical of Fatah’s failed initiatives. According to him, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has been made easier by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority’s security collaboration with Israel. In 2009 alone, for example, Palestinian and Israeli forces took part in almost thirteen hundred coordinated activities, most of them against Palestinian groups. Together they disbanded the Fatah-aligned Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades; attacked Islamic Jihad cells; and eliminated Hamas social institutions, financial arrangements and military operations in the occupied West Bank. (p114) Such collaboration has been the main tool used to break the Palestinian resistance to the Zionist occupation in the territory. The reviewer cites Israel’s Shin Bet internal security agency’s report praising collaboration as the main proof of this.
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He is also critical of America’s hypocrisy towards the democratic process in occupied Palestine. In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s electoral victory over Fatah in 2006, US Security Coordinator Lieutenant General Keith Dayton saw his job change overnight from reforming the Palestinian Authority security forces to preventing them from being controlled by the new Hamas-led government. What’s more, the US put pressure on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to rule by cabinet and make appointments limiting the new government’s ability to operate, especially on security matters. (p116)
In Thrall’s view, it is clear that the US does not want reconciliation or national unity between Hamas and Fatah. According to the ‘’End of Mission’’ report by Peruvian diplomat and UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace process Alvaro de Soto, the violence which erupted between Hamas and Fatah could have been avoided had the US not strongly opposed Palestinian reconciliation; indeed, the US pushed for a confrontation between the two movements.
The reviewer’s use of quotes from some of the main personalities involved in “peace talks” is revealing. The most shocking for me were the words of former Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Shamir who attended the Madrid Peace Conference and is accused of being the main reason for the collapse of the talks. “I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years,” he said, “and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria [the Zionists’ term for the occupied West Bank].” (p179) Thrall thus demonstrates his realistic perspective and awareness of what Israel really wants to achieve with the West Bank; in fact, the number of illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem now stands at more than 800,000. He also points out that regardless of the dynamics of US domestic politics, both Democrats and Republicans support Israel, right or wrong. That explains the weakness of successive US administrations in the face of Israeli intransigence, and Nathan Thrall’s idealism regarding the need to coerce both sides into making compromises.
Can we ever expect the US to push Israel towards compromise while decision-makers in Washington are not only Zionists themselves but also surrounded by pro-Israel advisers? Sadly, probably not.