Pressuring Peace

An interview with
Nathan Thrall

Nathan Thrall, author of a new book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, on the logic behind recent developments in the region.

Photo of a destroyed ambulance in Shuja'iyya in the Gaza Strip, taken during the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel on of August 6, 2014. Boris Niehaus / Wikimedia

For decades, the general contours of a resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict have been widely known and broadly accepted by Palestinian representatives and the international community: a two-state solution based upon pre-June 1967 borders, with land swaps, and East Jerusalem as the capital.

Today, many believe the window for such a settlement is rapidly closing. US officials in particular argue, however, that pressuring Israel to accept a compromise of any kind would only make things worse.

In his new book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, Nathan Thrall says that’s all wrong. Thrall, previously an editor at the New York Review of Books, argues that pressure of many kinds — diplomatic pressure, civil disobedience, and even violence — has worked in bringing about change in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

In an interview with Eli Massey for Jacobin, Thrall discusses the situation in Gaza, the effectiveness of armed struggle, the Trump administration’s policy toward Israel, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Thrall is a senior analyst in Jerusalem for the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization that produces publicly available research for policymakers, journalists, and NGOs.


EM

The UN predicted that Gaza could be uninhabitable by 2020, but recently a UN humanitarian aid coordinator said Gaza is already unlivable . Gazans have two to four hours of electricity per day if they’re lucky, and over 90 percent of Gaza’s water is undrinkable.

Could you discuss what life is like in Gaza?

NT

The main thing that people don’t realize is just how many second-, third-, and fourth-order effects there are from the lack of electricity in Gaza and how that has led to enormous health problems.

It’s not just a matter of people on dialysis treatment in hospitals not being able to rely on a constant supply of electricity. It’s a matter of sewage failing to work, and this leading to increases in disease and infant mortality. The system that brings water up into apartments in tall buildings relies on electricity, so people are not even able to get water in their apartments.

Even when you take a shower in Gaza, it’s salty. The water that comes out is salty. Or you brush your teeth and have no idea whether the water is safe. People purchase water for drinking, but you’re still showering and brushing your teeth with this terrible water.

People live in tall buildings. They don’t want to go grocery shopping. They don’t want to lug all this food up to their place. People are not holding meetings because it’s too much of hassle to get from one place to another without electricity. When electricity does turn on, it turns on in unpredictable ways, with surges that have caused lots of appliances to be destroyed, so all kinds of people’s laundry machines, washing machines, etc., are broken.

The impact on daily life, it’s just every minute people are suffering as a result of this electricity crisis.

EM

In terms of reaching a solution, these days, the map of the West Bank looks like Swiss cheese. Many feel that that’s killed the chances of any two-state solution.

But is the one-state solution in any better shape? Support in the UN General Assembly is non-existent, and most Jewish Israelis would probably never support a bi-national state with equal rights for all because they believe that would mean the end of the Jewish state.

NT

I agree with the premise. In general, there’s a tendency to present one state or two states as dichotomous options for Israel/Palestine, and it’s just a matter, sometime in the very near future, of when a choice between them will be made — that we’re at some kind of a tipping point between the two.

That analysis neglects how sustainable this fifty-year-long occupation has been, and can continue to be. That is the third option. And it’s by far the most likely of the three.

A lot of what I’m doing in the book is showing why that third option is the most realistic one. It’s not without costs for Israel. But for many Israeli decision-makers, those costs are perceived to be the least significant ones.

EM

One ostensible supporter of the one-state solution is Trump’s Ambassador to Israel David Friedman who has a strong pro-settlement background. Though the US generally acts as a shameless supporter of Israel, there’s a rhetorical pretense of balance. The oft-repeated diplomatic phrase “settlements are an obstacle to peace” comes to mind.

Does Friedman’s pro-settler rhetoric mean he’s changing US policy or just aligning the rhetoric with US actions?

NT

I don’t really detect any shift in policy from the Trump administration on this conflict.

Trump wants to achieve a two-state solution. It’s a great priority for him. He’s tasked senior people with trying to achieve it. They’re now going around attempting to figure out how to start a process. The US is doing very little about settlement construction, which was also the case under previous administrations. On substance, I don’t see much of a difference so far.

From a Palestinian perspective, it really makes no difference if settlement growth is increasing while the Obama administration is privately tearing its hair out and frustrated about it, or whether settlement construction is proceeding apace while the Trump administration shrugs. Those two things don’t really look any different to Palestinians.

I have not heard a single person who’s had conversations with the Trump administration say that they’re exploring any of these kind of alternative scenarios, such as trying to have Jordanian sovereignty over Palestinian cities in the West Bank or some kind of shared arrangement between Israel and Jordan over controlling the West Bank.

All you hear is that they’re having the same discussions about a two-state solution and they’re getting the same proposals from the same cast of characters.

Certainly, Friedman holds a different view about the West Bank than most of his predecessors. But does that actually translate into the Trump administration pursuing something other than a two-state solution?

EM

Right, and it’s not even clear how much power Friedman exercises in the administration in terms of shaping US-Israeli policy. It seems like Jared Kushner is the one who holds sway.

NT

Yes, my assumption would be that Kushner will have more influence on this issue than the US ambassador. That’s certainly been the case in previous administrations, where the US ambassador to Israel was not actually influential in shaping US policy.

US ambassadors are spokespersons for US policy and they explain US policy. But they’re not actually shaping it in most cases. So it could be that because Friedman does indeed have a close relationship with Trump, it will be different in this administration. We just don’t know yet.

EM

Especially when it comes to Israel/Palestine, US commentators and policymakers routinely portray violence as an ineffective means of obtaining justice.  But you write that, historically, violence on both sides of this conflict has succeeded in forcing concessions from the other.

Is armed resistance an effective tactic for Palestinians or is it counterproductive?

NT

Looking backward, it’s definitely the case that armed resistance has been effective. For example, it brought the withdrawal from Gaza and led directly to the partial withdrawal from Hebron. There was also violence at the end of the first Intifada in the early 1990s as negotiators were meeting in Oslo and demanding an end to the violence and making concessions toward Palestinian self-determination. And then there are numerous other examples, including the example of Israel’s full withdrawal from Lebanon.

Whether that’s a smart national strategy is a separate question, because nonviolence has been effective as well, and violence is not the only form of pressure. And violence has come at an extraordinarily high cost for the Palestinians. Whenever there’s a violent confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis, the Palestinian casualties are much higher and other forms of Palestinian suffering from the conflict are usually much more severe.

The thesis of my book is not that violence is the only way to get concessions; it’s that pressure is the only way to incentivize change to the status quo. But that pressure can come about in many ways. Looking forward, non-violent resistance, to the extent that it’s possible, has the potential to be a much more powerful strategy.

But another thing I document in the book is that after the 1993 Oslo accords, engaging in non-violent resistance has become much, much more difficult for Palestinians. And in a way, the Oslo arrangements have immunized Israel from the nonviolent levers that the Palestinians once had.

For example, during the first Intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s, labor strikes were a powerful tool. But Oslo enacted a separation between Israelis and Palestinians such that Israel came to depend much more on foreign workers and much less on Palestinian ones, so that future attempts to engage in labor strikes by Palestinians would be much less effective. Other changes have also made labor strikes less effective; the Israeli economy now is more dependent on capital than it is on labor.

EM

You mention nonviolent tactics. Many are hopeful that the BDS movement could pressure Israel to change. But in your book, you write that “In the countries in which the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel have made the largest gains — South Africa and the United Kingdom — Israeli exports have in fact sharply risen.”

Does that mean BDS’s prospects for success are overstated?

NT

If you look at BDS’s actual economic impact on Israel so far, it’s negligible. In material, tangible, quantifiable terms, its success so far has been greatly overstated.

But if you look at how much BDS has succeeded in creating a sense of fear among supporters of Israel and among Israeli elites, then you can make a much stronger case that it’s been successful. We’re far from seeing policy changes on the part of Israel based on the threat of BDS — but it’s possible that that will change.

EM

Recently there’s been a renewed push for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the two major Palestinian political factions. The last major effort in that direction, in 2014, was swiftly followed by Israel’s war against Gaza, which Israel claimed was precipitated by the abduction and murder of three Jewish settler teenagers, and it was followed by a barrage of rockets fired by Hamas.

In your book, you write that “neither Israel nor Hamas sought the summer 2014 war in Gaza.” How would you respond to the argument that Israel, seeking to undermine the bargaining power of a unity government, used the kidnapping of the Israeli teens as a pretext to wage the 2014 offensive?

NT

I would say that the weakness of that argument is that the “government of national consensus,” as it was called, that was formed in June 2014, a month before the war broke out, was a failure from day one. They were failing to take over Gaza. All the Hamas ministers convened their employees and threw going away parties and said, “Now you are going to report to the new ministers in Ramallah.”

And Ramallah never took over. Salaries were not paid, and none of the core elements of agreement were actually implemented in Gaza. So there was really no reason for Israel to fear that this government of national consensus was really going to change things in either the West Bank or Gaza.

EM

For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s all true. Wouldn’t undermining a shaky unity government and a desire to “mow the lawn” be enough incentive for Israel? What do the Israelis have to lose in attacking Gaza?

NT

What I’m addressing is really the degree to which the threat of a national unity government, a government of national consensus, was the driving motivation for Israel in pursuing that war or allowing it to go for fifty days and any of the other elements of it. I do think that Israel definitely wanted to undermine that government, and they definitely did not initially want to have that government resolving the salary crisis, for example, in Gaza. Those positions changed during the war, and by the end of the war Israel said that they wanted the government to operate in Gaza and they wanted the salary crisis to be resolved.

But I don’t think that’s actually what brought about the war. I think that what brought it was that, after the murder and kidnapping of these three yeshiva students in June, Israel launched an enormous arrest campaign in the West Bank, arresting many of the prisoners they had released in the [Gilad] Shalit prisoner exchange of 2011 — Shalit was an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas, held for five years, and released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. The sweep was very wide, and Israel arrested many people who had nothing to do with it, who were not in violation of the terms of their release.

There was a lot of protest in the West Bank, which then led to protests in solidarity in Gaza and rockets being fired in solidarity from Gaza. The entire situation was inflamed in both the West Bank and Gaza.

In addition, you had the fact that the consensus government had formed and was failing to deliver on the most basic elements of what it was supposed to provide, which is opening up the crossings and resolving the salary crisis.

All of that led to a situation in which war became very likely. But I don’t think that the formation of the consensus government alone was enough to bring about the war in Gaza.