Nathan Thrall is a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, where he focuses on the Arab-Israeli conflict. A frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books, Thrall has also written for Commentary, which is to say he’s a writer who specializes in upsetting expectations. His first book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, turns conventional thinking about the peace process and the contemporary foreign policy wisdom that undergirds it on its head. Eruptions of violence, Thrall argues, haven’t thwarted the chances of peace—rather, it’s only force that has compelled either side to make compromises. Maybe the road to peace goes through war.
Nathan is a friend—we first met more than a decade ago in Jerusalem, where he now lives with his wife Judy and three daughters, Zoe, Tessa, and Juno. We spoke recently about his new book, the new administration, and the chances for peace.
Lee Smith: You say that only force has compelled either of the two sides to compromise, but clearly you’re not just referring to violent force. What else constitutes force?
Nathan Thrall: In the book I define force as any form of pressure that threatens significant costs: not just violence but economic sanctions, unarmed protests, civil disobedience, and severe diplomatic coercion, such as the threat to withhold aid, impose a settlement in the U.N. Security Council, or downgrade relations. At various points throughout the Arab-Israeli conflict, each of these has compelled concessions on both sides. In Washington, what is perceived as tough talk—for example, the State Department “condemning” settlement construction rather than describing it as “unhelpful”—is frequently mistaken for pressure or even force. But if the party toward whom Washington directs such words does not see any significant cost emanating from them—and that is definitely the case in the example above—then it hardly constitutes coercion or the use of force, broadly defined.
LS: If you take your thesis to its extreme conclusion, isn’t the answer simply that one side should wipe out the other?
NT: It’s certainly the case that the total defeat of one side in an ethno-national conflict is one of the most stable possible outcomes. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, that is a desired outcome by a minority on each side but regarded as impossible by Palestinian and Israeli decision-makers. For Palestinians, it’s obviously impossible because, as Prime Minister Ehud Barak once said, “The Palestinians are the source of legitimacy for the continuation of the conflict, but they are the weakest of all our adversaries. As a military threat they are ludicrous. They pose no military threat of any kind.” For Israel, expulsion of all Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza would be pretty easy to achieve militarily, but, leaving moral considerations aside, it would come at too high a price for the country, including the sort of international isolation and boycotts and sanctions that are now frequently threatened but remain in the realm of fantasy. Israel might be willing to consider risking those sorts of repercussions in order to avoid an existential threat, but not in order to deal with an adversary as weak as the Palestinians. Another complication is that more than half of the people in the world who identify as Palestinian reside outside mandatory Palestine, so even mass expulsion would likely not resolve the conflict for Israel.
LS: Why has the peace process been so important to generations of American policymakers—up to, it seems, the current White House.
NT: The rationales have varied over the years, from the notion, now largely discredited, that Israeli-Palestinian peace was the key to resolving other issues in the region to the desire to make it easier for Arab nations to ally with the United States in spite of its support for Israel. There is also a desire on the part of American policymakers to balance strong U.S. support for Israel against seeming support for the Palestinians. Most U.S. policymakers believe that the U.S. should stand for freedom throughout the world, and so there is an instinctive desire to counter the claim that in Israel-Palestine the U.S. stands for perpetual occupation. I think that motivation is present regardless of the need for America’s Arab allies to have the “cover” of U.S. support for the peace process. There are other motives, too, though: Americans care deeply about the Holy Land; presidents and secretaries of state find in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process a fairly low-stakes—from the perspective of core U.S. interests—but high profile arena in which they might cement their legacy and possibly make history; and there is also a strong element of inertia.
LS: What do you give the chances of a Trump administration-led peace process? Is Mahmoud Abbas serious about peace? Is Benjamin Netanyahu? Is President Trump?
NT: Given the bipartisan consensus around how to conduct the peace process—namely, holding lots of meetings, putting out lots of carrots, and avoiding sticks—the chances for any administration are very low. What you can say about Trump is that his willingness to ignore the bipartisan consensus on a number of issues offers at least the possibility—though far from the probability—that he could try a radically different approach than the one that is guaranteed to fail. Mahmoud Abbas has enormous problems with his legitimacy, but no one can doubt that he is serious about peace: This is the man who more than any other Palestinian is responsible for bringing the Palestinian national movement toward a strategy of dialogue, negotiations, acceptance of a two-state solution, and abhorrence of all violence toward Israel, not just terrorism. He led outreach to the Israeli left in the 1970s, at a time when people were killed for doing so, he was a leading architect of Oslo, he negotiated a draft peace agreement—the 1995 Beilin-Abu Mazen document—that offered unprecedented compromises to Israel, he condemned terrorism during the second intifada, and he has overseen the past 12 years of close security cooperation between his forces and Israel in the West Bank. Benjamin Netanyahu is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. He is capable of making a peace agreement, but only if the incentives are changed so that it becomes rational for him to do so. Right now it isn’t. Donald Trump is a wildly unpredictable figure, but for the time being at least he has made Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority of his administration, and one would think that his well-documented desire for personal glory is a powerful motivator.
LS: Do you believe with former secretary of state John Kerry that the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not sustainable? Why not? Or why does peace in this arena matter when the rest of the region is in flames?
NT: U.S. policymakers typically assert that the status quo is unsustainable because of demography: eventually, they claim, Israel will have to choose between being a democracy and an apartheid state, between giving citizenship to Palestinians or giving them independence. But what the past decades show is that no such choice is being forced on Israel. It’s an empty threat. So long as there is a Palestinian Authority, and, with it, a chance, however slim, of a negotiated two-state solution, the U.S. and the majority of the world’s nations will continue to regard the status quo as temporary, and will therefore not force the choice on Israel that they claim it will “inevitably” have to make.
LS: How does the status of the rest of the region, especially the ongoing war in Syria, affect the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Same with other regional concerns, whether that’s the minor squabble among GCC members or potential political instability now in Iran.
NT: One of the main effects of the Syrian war and turmoil throughout the region has been to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less of a priority, not just for the U.S., Israel, and Europe but for the Arab states as well. It’s hard to find anyone who believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will alter the fate of Syria, Yemen, or Libya. What that means for the Palestinians is that they have far less leverage in public diplomacy, in support from the Arab states, and in international institutions. At the same time, when Palestinian lose hope of outside intervention, as they did after the PLO was crushed in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, they tend to take matters into their own hands.
LS: What would a deal with the Israelis look like to the Palestinians?
NT: I think implicit in your question is a good and often overlooked point: that the two-state solution that Israelis and Palestinians have been endlessly negotiating in many respects resembles something more akin to a 1.5 state solution. Which is to say that past negotiations have taken for granted that the Palestinian state would have all kinds of restrictions on its sovereignty. It would be demilitarized. Israel would have approval over any weapons that are brought in. There might be restrictions on what sorts of alliances it could make. Israel might have some say in who enters the West Bank. NT: There might be some Israeli security role on the Palestinian-Jordanian border. There would be some degree of Israeli control over the corridor connecting Gaza to the West Bank. This is what Prime Minister Netanyahu meant when he recently said that he would be willing to grant the Palestinians a “state-minus.” This is what Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin meant when in his final address to the Knesset he said that he envisioned the Palestinians having an “entity that is less than a state.” At the same time, to answer the explicit meaning of your question, even a “state-minus” would give the Palestinians much much more than they have today. Palestinians ostensibly have full control over less than a fifth of the West Bank and none of East Jerusalem. They can’t allow Palestinian refugees from the diaspora to relocate to the West Bank. They can’t go to Jordan without Israeli approval. At a minimum, a peace agreement would give them five times more territory than they have today, far more control over their entrances and exits from the West Bank and Gaza, access to Jerusalem that they don’t have today, a connection to the two million people in Gaza from whom they are severed, and it would allow them to take in refugees from around the world. Those aren’t minor changes.
LS: There’s an argument that Israel has peace, or the kind of situation that the world has called peace for thousands of years—borders and the ability to defend them. That is, even if they have to fight to protect themselves, the Israelis still has a real peace. So, what would a deal with the Palestinians bring them that they don’t already have?
NT: I’m glad you asked that question because it is one of the central themes of my book. I argue that Israel has very little incentive to make a deal with the Palestinians at present, and the entire peace process has been a charade and will continue to be a charade so long as it doesn’t address the fundamental question of incentives. One cannot have a successful peacemaking strategy that is premised on a lie, as was the case for John Kerry and many before him. The lie is that the two sides have a rational interest in agreeing to the two-state settlement that the U.S. has been espousing, and therefore no significant coercion is needed to reach the outcome that the U.S. has invested so many hours and billions of dollars in attempting to achieve. If Israel were to agree tomorrow to a two-state settlement along the lines of Kerry’s framework proposal or the Arab Peace Initiative, it would suffer real, tangible costs, including domestic upheaval, violence, forcible relocation of Israeli citizens, loss of sovereignty in Jerusalem and management of holy sites, and an end to the total security control that it presently enjoys. In exchange, it would bring out into the open the relations with Arab states that are already taking place behind the scenes; it would slow the BDS movement, which would probably adapt by placing greater emphasis on equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and embassies would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There really is no contest.
One of the goals of my book was to expose the blindness of the peace process industry to the obvious fact that Israel has little rational interest in a settlement with the Palestinians. Even if you could look into a crystal ball and show that in 20 or 50 years Israel will face the supposedly imminent choice that everyone has been saying it will have to make, it still wouldn’t be rational for Israel to make that choice now, rather than forestalling the decision and enjoying the benefits of the status quo until that day actually comes. What that means going forward is that, until there is a focus on changing the incentives for the parties, we’re all going to have to suffer through more rounds of talks, mutual recriminations from Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, exasperation from American secretaries of state, and useless commentary and analysis that will ignore the fundamental, structural reasons that the last round of talks failed, instead pointing to all the proximate and ultimately irrelevant ones: lack of trust, bad timing, insufficient preparation, poor coordination among different negotiating channels, insufficient confidence building measures, the list goes on.