Saturday, June 24, 2017

Book Review - The Only Language They Understand

Fifty years and nine U.S. Presidents after Israel crushed its Arab enemies in the Six-Day War, resolution of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is not close at hand. The corpus dissecting this dispute is already voluminous and to that pile we now add Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language The Understand a jeremiad directed largely at Israel with a central argument (Israeli and Palestinian concessions only occur under pressure from the U.S.) that is iffy at best.

Thrall’s book is an odd duck. His position that Israel must be brought to heel via heavy-handed U.S. negotiating tactics has some historical support. In 1956, 1974, 1977, and 1991, Presidents of both parties used a variety of sticks (and no carrots) to obtain Israeli compliance for everything from withdrawal after the 1956 War to opening talks in Madrid that led (indirectly) to the Oslo Accord two years later. On the other hand, Thrall laments what he sees as America’s default strategy — kowtowing to Israeli while demanding concessions from the Palestinians. At the same time, Thrall argues, Palestinian positions have weakened over time through the application of force against it (he largely dismisses the decades-long terrorist activities of groups like the PLO, PLFP, and more recently, Hamas).

For seventy or so pages, Thrall pushes his position with confidence and persuasive power. However, after laying out his argument in the book’s extended first chapter, the remainder of the book is a series of non-sequential essays previously published on a variety of topics central to the region’s long-standing dispute. Readers weave through recent battles fought in Gaza, and are taken back in time to the Oslo Accords and their aftermath. 

It is enough to give you whiplash. By the time Thrall gets back to his thesis, he undermines it entirely by pointing out a basic reality of American politics — no matter how “pro-Palestinian” an American president is perceived to be (and the right falsely castigated Obama as such throughout his eight years in office) or attempts to exert even modest pressure on the Israelis, a solid, bipartisan majority in Congress will rise to Israel’s defense. 

Short of the type of international opprobrium levied at apartheid-era South Africa that reached a critical mass in the mid-1980s (and even so, without U.S. support), there is far less leverage to exert over Israel than in the past, and that is because the Israel of 2017 is not just a military power, but an economic one as well - more technologically advanced than almost any other country on earth, exporting its ideas as well as its material across the globe, and expanding its diplomatic reach with countries and regions of the world as a backstop against possible repercussions attendant to its failure to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians. 

Moreover, one of the unintended consequences of our invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been the rise of Iran as a regional power and the resulting partnership of necessity between Israel and its Sunni neighbors. As Thrall notes, intelligence sharing between Israel and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia exists (albeit largely unspoken) as Shia Iran has extended its reach into Iraq and moved into Syria to prop up Assad.

Thrall’s bias is apparent and not hidden. If blame is to assigned, his finger invariably points to Israel. He argues that Palestinians are put in the position of sacrificing a tangible goal (statehood on most of the land Israel has occupied since 1967) for intangible concessions (the moral concession of acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state and disclaiming rights to land promised it in 1947.) However, the same argument could be made on the other side - Israel is sacrificing something tangible (land and security via the creation of a Palestinian state on either side of its borders) for something intangible (assurances that such an agreement will result in peace, and not afford Palestine the time needed to build a military to start another war.) He also gives short shrift to the variety of proposals Israeli leaders have put forward from Camp David to Taba to Annapolis only to have them rebuffed by Palestinian leadership without meaningful alternatives. 

Thrall is also unduly sympathetic toward Hamas - gliding past its terrorist activities and military tactics of kidnapping Israelis soldiers to extract bargains from Israel or its cynical placement of armaments in schools and hospitals - putting Israel in the impossible position of choosing to ignore the existence of these weapons or risk killing innocent people Hamas has put in harm’s way. That Hamas garners popular support is itself an indicator that Palestinians are uninterested in a legitimate peace deal, but Thrall has no time for moral equivalence, for him, Israel holds all the cards and thus, if not all, than certainly the lion’s share, of moral failing. 

Curiously, the reader will search The Only Language They Understand in vein for Thrall’s ideas on how to break this gridlock. And that is unsurprising. Ultimately, there is a Kabuki theater about all of this. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators know each other well and mingle and socialize behind closed doors (and off the record) when the inevitable new push for a peace deal comes from America. Their positions are as scripted as a professional wrestling match and each has incentives to feign interest in accommodation without getting any closer to a deal. For Israel, it delays any international attempts to force its hand (such as the so-called “boycott, divest, and sanctions” movement) while ensuring a steady flow of military aid and political cover from the U.S. For the Palestinian leadership, they receive sympathy in Western Europe and aid packages that forestall economic collapse. And if the feints toward compromise do not work, each side knows that they can just wait out foreign powers whose attention wanes or is diverted to other matters.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy and read Israelis-on-one-side-Palestinians-on-the-other peace proposal here: 

No comments:

Post a Comment