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  • The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine by Nathan Thrall
  • Ian S. Lustick (bio)
The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, by Nathan Thrall. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017. 336 pages. $28.

As a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, Nathan Thrall is both well-informed and well-respected. His book is divided into two parts. The title of the first chapter—101 pages, including 31 pages of fascinating endnotes—is the same as that of the book: "The Only Language They Understand." The remaining two-thirds of the book are fascinating, well-documented, and updated versions of reports published by Thrall between 2010 and 2016 in publications such as The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and The New York Times.

Thanks to considerable prepublication buzz, Thrall's argument in the first chapter is familiar to many Israel-Palestine watchers. Israel is ambitious, rational, and ruthless. This means that the country has only made concessions and will only make concessions (for peace or anything else) when it is presented with threats of loss that exceed the value of the concessions demanded. The other chapters are engaging, deeply informative, and even brilliant in their close evaluation of the delicate state of play among Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans. In the process, Thrall surfaces a great deal of information that will be new to most readers and some that will be startling even to close followers of the Israeli-Palestinian saga. However, although Thrall makes little effort to connect these chapters to his main argument, most of them do support the position that Israel will only compromise if it is forced to. One overall theme is that resistance in the two major Palestinian uprisings (known as intifadas) did have a marked and salutary effect on Israel. However, the coercive and restrictive regime forced on Palestinians via the Oslo agreements, the exhaustion and fear of the Palestinian masses, the hermetic seal Israel and Egypt have placed around the Gaza Strip, and the stultifying consequences of a never-ending, yet unproductive American-sponsored "peace process," have drained Israel's environment of the potential for the kinds of serious threats and pressures it needs to move toward compromise.

Traditionally, of course, Israelis have portrayed Arabs as those for whom force is "the only language they understand." But the argument that Israel will respond with concessions only out of loss and fear of loss, and not out of security and self-confidence, is also familiar, to Israelis as well as to Americans. The need for "tough love" to "save Israel from itself" is a formula standardly associated with George Ball, an American diplomat and long-time Washington "wise man." It was applied in its classic form by President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Penninsula and Gaza in 1957, and decades later by President George H. W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, when they withheld loan guarantees for settlements as a means of bringing an Israeli government to power more open to serious peace negotiations.

So Thrall's argument is not new, though it is refreshing and useful to hear it put clearly in relation to the current state of play. What is odd, however, is Thrall's use of President Jimmy Carter's approach to Israel as proof of his claim that only high material costs or forceful threats can ever induce Israel to withdraw from territory. In his first 10 months as president, Carter did set out in this direction, pressing Israel hard toward territorial compromise with the Palestinians. But he failed to do so. As virtually all observers agree, Carter responded to Israeli intransigence and massive domestic political opposition by abandoning the comprehensive peace principles of the October 1977 communiqué between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and Soviet foreign minister Andrey Gromyko, in favor of a separate [End Page 669] peace between Egypt and Israel with only a fig leaf for the Palestinians of three years of failed "Autonomy Negotiations." One lasting consequence of Carter's choice was to protect systematic Israeli policies of settlement and de...


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