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'The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine' review: Peace under pressure

The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine Nathan Thrall Metropolitan Books ₹918  

While announcing his decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, U.S. President Donald Trump described the city as “as the capital the Jewish people established in ancient times.” This was hardly surprising. During the campaign, Mr. Trump had called the contested city Israel’s “eternal capital.” By making good on a campaign promise, the President has lived up to his pro-Israel image. But if one looks at the modern times, as Nathan Thrall writes in his book, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem was the “cultural, political and commercial capital for Palestinians, connected to Bethlehem in the south and Ramallah in the north.” Today’s Jerusalem is claimed by both sides.

Two claimants

Israel captured the western half of the city in the 1948 war with the Arabs and established its seat of power there. The Palestinians say East Jerusalem, which has been under Israeli occupation from 1967, should be the capital of their future state. Against this background, Mr. Trump’s decision is a huge concession to the Israelis and his supporters say it would help the peace process in the long term. But, history tells us, concessions or inducements have done little in extracting compromises from Israel, which is the dominant power in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, writes that when it comes to Israel “force is language.” He tests this hypothesis with historical facts in the book, which is a detailed study of the peace process since the 1970s. American Presidents have historically been pro-Israel even as the U.S. remains the primary negotiator between Israelis and Palestinians.

In that sense, Mr. Trump is following suit. But there were two Presidents who “succeeded in compelling Israel to undertake a full territorial withdrawal.” After the Suez war, Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an ultimatum to Israel to withdraw from the territories it captured during the war. Israel did not have any intention to do so. But, after the Eisenhower administration said aid to Israel would be cut unless it withdrew (and the Soviet Union threatened to launch rocket attacks against Israeli positions), then Prime Minister Ben Gurion backed off.

President Jimmy Carter’s achievement was long-lasting. When Mr. Carter started engaging with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the Israeli government, led by right-wing leader Menachem Begin, opposed it vehemently. Begin described the PLO as a murderous anti-Semitic organisation.

The Israeli right at that time had not even recognised Palestinian claims over occupied territories. The Begin government even used the Jewish lobby in Washington to put pressure on the administration and approached the Egyptians to reach a peace deal bypassing Palestinians. It didn’t work as the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, said any engagement with Israel should address the Palestine question as well. President Carter was also pushing for a resolution of “the Palestinian problem in all aspects.” Finally, Begin blinked. He made a counter-proposal to the Americans, which led to the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt, the Framework for Peace in West Asia, which served as the blueprint for the 1993 Oslo agreement. The Obama administration was also critical of Israeli policies, issuing repeated warnings against its settlement activities in Palestinian land. But President Barack Obama didn’t achieve any breakthrough. “Obama finished his presidency much as he had started it: bold in words and timid in deeds,” writes Thrall. In the case of Israel, the Obama administration believed that “Israel would eventually grasp its truth.”

Palestine’s concessions

The Palestinians have also made concessions over the years. In the 1948 war, Israel captured 23% more territories than what even the UN had proposed for “an independent Jewish nation.” When the PLO was formed, its goal was to “liberate” all of Palestine. Later, the PLO settled for an independent Palestinian nation within the 1967 border — which is only 22% of the historic Palestine.

When the Oslo agreement was signed and a provisional government was formed in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian leadership excluded Jerusalem from the process, allowing Israel to continue the occupation of East Jerusalem. But even with these compromises, the Palestinians failed to move towards sovereignty.

Almost a quarter century after the Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority still controls only parts of the West Bank, with Israel building more settlements in the occupied land. Gaza is blockaded from all sides. The peace process is in tatters. That’s why Thrall calls the Oslo process the “Oslo trap.”

Why is Israel not serious about peace with Palestine? Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan. It once offered a peace plan to Syria. But it keeps ignoring the demands from Palestine.

According to Thrall, it’s because Palestinians never posed a real threat to Israel and “were too weak to protect their concessions from further erosion.” To bridge this imbalance in power, Israel has to be brought under international pressure. The only country that could do so, as the past shows, is the U.S. But when the U.S. is taking sides with Israel, as Trump’s Jerusalem move suggests, Palestinians are left to themselves.

The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine; Nathan Thrall, Metropolitan Books, ₹918.


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