A New Islamic Politics: Faith and Human Rights in the Middle East
One of the most striking aspects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first months in office has been his focus on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump has often referred to a peace agreement between the two antagonists as the “ultimate deal,” and so far he has put as much time and effort into getting the sides to yes as he has on any other issue. Trump tasked his son-in-law and most trusted adviser, Jared Kushner, with the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio before he was even inaugurated, and he tasked the Trump Organization’s top lawyer, Jason Greenblatt, with mediating between the two sides. He separately hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House; sent Greenblatt not only to Israel and the West Bank but to Arab capitals and an Arab League summit; held discussions with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt on crafting a regional solution to the conflict; and visited both Jerusalem and Bethlehem on his first trip overseas.
Just as striking as the president’s focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been the acclaim he has received from former officials, think tankers, and analysts who are part of what is sometimes derisively referred to as the “peace process industry.” Many who do not support Trump on other foreign policy issues have applauded his cautious and measured approach on this one, and in particular his efforts to listen to both sides, refrain from making any early demands, and use a flattering personal approach to get Netanyahu and Abbas to the table. Rather than put pressure on either leader, Trump has apparently settled upon a strategy of propping up their egos—and their domestic political positions—through early Oval Office visits and his own recent trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For many, this has revived hopes that as the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank draws near, the two sides can resolve their differences and forestall another 50 years of bloodshed and acrimony.
In Nathan Thrall’s estimation, not only does this strategy have no chance of success, it is in fact a tragic mistake. Thrall has consistently been one of the sharpest observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the United States’ role in trying to end it, and his most recent contribution, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, is true to form. In it, Thrall argues that throughout the history of the conflict, Israeli and Palestinian concessions have been driven entirely by pressure. In his formulation, the cause of the present stalemate is not a lack of trust between the parties but a lack of costs imposed—primarily on the Israeli side—for prolonging it. The argument is a compelling one, and Thrall expertly marshals historical evidence to demonstrate his thesis that both sides respond to sticks rather than carrots. In doing so, however, Thrall swings the pendulum so far to one side that it raises questions about the limits of his argument and whether his diagnosis is correct only in the context of other unconsidered factors.
Thrall’s book consists of an overview of the history of Israeli withdrawals and Palestinian concessions and a series of previously written essays on the twists and turns of the peace process. Thrall tells a story in which the parties make hard choices only when looking down the barrel of a proverbial gun. He opens with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the bête noire of many Israelis for his treatment of the Jewish state, and reconstructs how Carter’s tough line with Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin—which included harsh public rhetoric, blocking weapons deals to Israel, threatening to cut off aid, and engaging with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—eventually led to the Camp David accords of 1978. The accords provided a framework for peace between Israel and Egypt and a starting point for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that would lead to the Oslo Accords and Palestinian governance in the West Bank and Gaza. Thrall argues that only by putting pressure on the Israelis (Begin in particular) was Carter able to extract concessions, and it was only in response to significant political pressure or the threat of violence that Israel decided to withdraw from occupied territory, whether in Gaza, Lebanon, Sinai, Syria, or the West Bank.
Thrall’s analysis of the efficacy of pressure is not limited to Israel. In tracking the history of the Palestinian national movement, he argues that the PLO’s territorial ambitions moved from all of Mandatory Palestine to the 22 percent that they demand today (encompassed by the West Bank and Gaza) only as a result of military defeats, economic hardship, and diplomatic pressure. In the fall of 1991, for instance, the PLO was forced to accept humiliating terms of attendance for the Madrid conference—including the lack of a separate Palestinian delegation and having the statehood issue taken off the table entirely—following its disastrous decision to support the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, which had led to a collapse in the group’s outside support. And the PLO’s dire financial situation in the early 1990s (a result of Arab states cutting off aid after the Persian Gulf War) put it under so much pressure that it eventually accepted the Oslo formula for a two-state solution, which provided for limited Palestinian autonomy under Israeli sovereignty. This was despite having rejected such a formula for decades, since it neither ended the occupation nor granted the Palestinians full statehood.
In focusing on the ways in which pressure has forced compromise, Thrall not only uses the historical record to great effect but also appeals to basic common sense. It is logical that a weak negotiating position or a serious threat will create a more fruitful environment for concessions; this is the bedrock not only of geopolitical conflicts but of everyday interactions between ordinary people. That the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be immune to the logic of consequences itself defies logic, and the notion that there is something unique about Israel that makes utilizing negative incentives a fruitless endeavor (as opposed to a morally backward endeavor, given Israel’s status as a democracy in a notoriously undemocratic region) is more about domestic U.S. politics than it is about international politics.
But as important and sensible as Thrall’s argument is, it is not without fault. Much as force cannot be discounted in the story of why Israelis and Palestinians have sometimes retreated from their hardened positions, neither should the influence of positive support be ignored, particularly when considering the role of the United States as an external actor. For instance, Thrall argues that Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter, the two U.S. presidents who were most skeptical of Israel, “were the only ones who succeeded in compelling Israel to undertake a full territorial withdrawal.” This is factually correct, but it requires him to treat the Oslo Accords and the 2005 Gaza disengagement as lesser concessions (although still the result of a set of serious pressures) in order to maintain his argument that pressure, and pressure alone, works better than any other method.
The reality is less black and white. The Oslo Accords date from the presidency of Bill Clinton, and the disengagement from Gaza was carried out with George W. Bush in office—both of whom were famously pro-Israel. Neither breakthrough, moreover, was solely the result of external pressure, and Thrall’s overall argument is weaker for not acknowledging the complications in his narrative. Thrall argues correctly, for instance, that Oslo was signed in 1993 during a period of intense violence and following the first Hamas suicide bombings. But it was also signed after Israel had been coping with the first intifada (a Palestinian uprising that began in 1987) for six years and had become more resigned to living with it. This was at the same time that the Palestinian leadership—as documented by Thrall himself—was in unprecedented disarray.
It is also far from clear that Oslo was an insignificant concession. Thrall argues that the accords “allowed Israel not to end the occupation but repackage it, from direct to indirect control.” But although the Oslo Accords themselves may have fallen well short of the Palestinians’ desire for a state, and can thus be spun, with the benefit of hindsight, as less significant from an absolute perspective than Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, from a relative perspective they were a bombshell within Israel. It was the first time that Israel actually implemented any form of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank or ceded any right to territory in its biblical heartland, and the accords created the Palestinian Authority and gave it administrative control over 40 percent of the West Bank. Today’s virulent denunciations of Oslo from the Israeli right were no less virulent in 1995 when an Israeli rightist assassinated Rabin over the latter’s support for the accords. What matters in this case is what Israelis perceived themselves to be doing, which was making what they viewed as historic concessions from a position of relative strength and with the encouragement of a historically friendly U.S. president.
It is also hard for Thrall to maintain his overarching thesis when it comes to Oslo because Israel’s decision to negotiate and sign the accords can be viewed in one of two ways. Either Israel was under pressure from a new and more deadly wave of terrorism and therefore was forced into making an unprecedented and costly concession it did not want to make, or Israel was looking for a crafty way to lessen the costs of its presence in the West Bank and shift those costs onto the Palestinian leadership. Choosing either one involves weakening some part of Thrall’s argument, since the former means that Oslo was a concession just as significant as withdrawal from Sinai or Lebanon, and the latter means that violence of the first intifada did not actually work, since Israel was not compromising but instead tricking the Palestinians into something that would ultimately benefit Israel. Looked at this way, Thrall’s black-and-white argument could benefit from a bit more gray.
The 2005 disengagement from Gaza under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is similarly more complicated than Thrall concedes. Thrall attributes Israel’s decision to withdraw on the enormous strain Sharon was under to halt the violence that became tragically routine during the second intifada, which began after the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000. He also points to the fact that Israelis supported separation and territorial concessions in large part because of their evident inability to force a purely military solution. But it is important to note two additional facts: first, that the Gaza disengagement came under the pro-Israel presidency of the second Bush rather than in the midst of a pressure campaign waged by the United States; and second, that the Gaza withdrawal was designed in part to foreclose the possibility of future concessions in the West Bank and thereby secure Israel’s large settlement blocs there. In this instance, force in the form of Israeli blood spilled was the prime mover behind Israeli concessions, but U.S. support and new inducements for Israel to withdraw from Gaza played a role as well. It must also be noted that one can draw a straight line from the terrorism of the second intifada to today’s more intransigent Israeli government, which uses the past decade of rocket attacks from Gaza as an argument against making any further concessions to the Palestinians. Although pressure in the form of violence may often spur compromise in the moment, it can also have the opposite effect when widening the time horizon.
There are other spots where Thrall works hard to fit the facts into his narrative in ways that are unsatisfactory. In his treatment of the first intifada, for instance, he argues that the uprising created more pressure on the PLO than it relieved and thus forced the organization to finally accept UN Resolution 242, which meant recognizing Israel and giving up claims to all but 22 percent of the Palestinian territory that Israel conquered in 1967. But the intifada knocked Israel off balance, brought renewed attention to the Palestinian cause, and caused Jordan to cede its claim to the West Bank directly to the PLO. For the Palestinians, the uprising may actually have been an opportunity rather than a cause for alarm.
In his discussion of the failed negotiations overseen by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013–14, too, Thrall echoes President Barack Obama’s assessment that Abbas and the PLO were too weak to make peace (although he faults Obama for not understanding why this was so). Whereas Thrall’s theory should have predicted greater compromise in that situation, Abbas instead walked away from the Obama framework without even so much as a response. Why? In discussing Abbas’ weakness, Thrall notes that Abbas, who was surrounded only by doves favorable to the Americans and Israelis, did not represent Hamas supporters or other neglected Palestinian constituencies and thus could never muster the support needed for any deal. “It should not have been surprising, then, that given the choice between making politically explosive concessions and rejecting the U.S. framework, the PLO moved in April 2014 to end the talks.” Thrall’s analysis is correct, but it rests on bringing in a whole slew of other domestic political factors that complicate his argument that a weakened position and pressure lead to compromise. Abbas rejecting an American president at one of his lowest points can fit into the larger argument only if pressure and force of any kind and from any source all become equivalent, making the book’s central theory unfalsifiable.
Force may very well compel Israelis and Palestinians into their largest compromises, but these decisions cannot be divorced from their broader context.
The examples above are not evidence that Thrall’s thesis is incorrect—only that it may be too ambitious. Pressure can explain a lot, but it cannot explain all. Force may very well compel Israelis and Palestinians into their largest compromises, but these decisions cannot be divorced from their broader context. The impact of specific leaders matters; legendary hawks such as Begin, Rabin, and Sharon have been able to bring the Israeli public along in support of compromise largely because their credibility on security matters was never in doubt. The popularity of the American president inside Israel matters, too. It was easy for Netanyahu to oppose Obama given the latter’s historic levels of unpopularity with the Israeli public, whereas Clinton’s popularity made acceptance of Oslo more palatable. As the recent round of failed negotiations demonstrates, nothing can be divorced from domestic politics either: both Netanyahu and Abbas would have created greater problems for themselves at home by saying yes to a deal than by saying no.
None of this should detract from the value or general thrust of Thrall’s work, which gets far more right than it does wrong. One can take exception to his prescription that significantly more U.S. pressure on Israel is required, while acknowledging the harsh truth of his observation that Israel has historically preferred its fallback options to the pain that a peace agreement would impose. The Palestinians are not faultless and bear their own enormous measure of responsibility, and suggesting, as Thrall does, that Israel will never compromise unless it is pushed to do so by the international community is more of an ideological agenda than a realistic policy prescription. Many Israelis see the logic and necessity of a Palestinian state, and the pathway to peace may lie in making it a more attractive option. This could be done by hammering out security guarantees that allow some Israel Defense Forces presence in a future Palestine and by giving Israel a glimpse of the enormous economic benefits that will come with being integrated into the wider Middle East. That sticks have historically yielded higher returns does not mean that carrots have no role, and Trump’s fixation on Israeli-Palestinian peace may provide new data points for this debate. But whether or not Thrall is correct in his assignment of primary responsibility for the current impasse to Israel or in his focus on force to the exclusion of all else, one cannot read The Only Language They Understand without acknowledging the power of his argument that force does indeed matter.