September 18, 2019

Will American Jews resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?


It’s been a busy week in Middle East peace making, but don’t lose sleep over it. As the White House acknowledged yesterday, making peace takes time. It takes a long time. More than a 24 hour visit by Jared Kushner to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Kushner had meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and with President Abbas, and, judging by the leaks from these two meetings, this time it is the Israeli side that is more satisfied.

Why? Probably because of the American focus on Palestinian funding of terrorism – not direct funding of terrorism, but there is no other way to interpret the payments provided by the Palestinian Authority to the families of suicide bombers. The Trump administration understands this, and is pushing Abbas to forgo with this unreasonable habit. Abbas is afraid to do such a thing – it is political suicide, and it could trigger violence directed at the PA.

And why is Israel more relaxed? Because most of what it might be required to do, though unpleasant and politically challenging, is doable. If the US asks for a freeze of certain settlement activities, Israel can accept the challenge – it has already done such things in the past. And since the main goal in the Israeli-Palestinian game, at least for now, is not to be the one saying no to Trump – Israel is currently better positioned than the Palestinians.

That’s not a lot, but it’s something.


Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post in which he argued that American Jews – and he isn’t talking about American Jews such as Kushner, Greenblatt, and Friedman – can have a big role in helping Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace:

A new, more committed alliance has emerged that is hoping to have an impact. It is made up of Palestinians who are genuinely committed to absolute nonviolence, along with Israelis and diaspora Jews who are willing to translate their support into direct action. Some existing American Jewish groups have made serious changes in the way they present their peace agenda, while new Jewish diaspora groups are emerging based on the idea of direct action.

He is wrong for three reasons:

1. American Jews don’t have much influence on Israel when it comes to its foreign affairs and security policy.

2. American Jews of the camp Kuttab refers to do not have much sway over the Trump administration – in fact, these groups are seen as hostile by the administration (for good reason).

3. American Jews cannot change the fundamental realities that have made the conflict unsolvable thus far.


Nathan Thrall’s new book is making headlines because of the unapologetic approach it takes – beginning with the name of the book – towards pressuring Israel and the Palestinians and forcing them into a compromise. The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine is well written. But it states the obvious: humans might cave under pressure, when they realize that the price they are paying for their actions is higher than their gains.

What it fails to do – in my opinion – is explain two points:

1. Why is it so essential for the world to force a compromise? The world hasn’t forced a compromise in Syria, in the Ukraine, in Yemen, and in so many other places around the world. Yet Thrall focuses on this specific conflict zone as if it must be a first priority for the world community. I find that odd.

2. Thrall makes the mistake that economists used to make when they used game theory to understand human behavior. He treats the Middle East – us – as rational players in a rational game. Make us lose, and we will compromise. Make us suffer, and we will accept an uneasy solution. To his credit, Thrall makes the case with conviction, and based on many examples. But he fails to see that the real compromise, the painful concessions, are much more profound than anything that was asked of Israel and the Palestinians in the past. He fails to see that at some point, the response to pressure could be counter pressure – force, violence. He fails to see that if this happens, the price paid by all sides will be very high – there will be a lot of suffering, and a lot of bloodshed, and possible chaos.

For some reason – see point A – Thrall is ready to take such a risk. For a much better reason – see point B – it would be wise not to take such a risk.


Thrall answers some of these questions in an interview with Lee Smith. Here is, for example, part of his answer on why America cares so much about this issue:

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.

Again, to Thrall’s credit, he gives an honest answer. To his discredit, he doesn’t see that these are poor reasons for someone to argue for using force (and by this Thrall means economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure) to resolve the conflict.