The two-state solution — the internationally desired creation of separate Israeli and Palestinian states, along borders approximately equivalent to what existed before the 1967 war — remains the stated goal of the Trump administration as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But the facts on the ground suggest it's nowhere in sight.
Today's WorldView: So, tell us about the somewhat grim thesis of your book.
Nathan Thrall: The thesis of my book is that force — including but not limited to violence — has been a prime driver of accommodation for both Israel and the Palestinians. Through one military defeat after another, the Palestinians slowly made ideological concessions that brought them from rejection of any Zionist presence in Palestine to acceptance and recognition of Israel in 78 percent of historic Palestine. What I show in the book is that each step along that long and tortuous path was driven by severe pressure on the Palestinians — military, economic and diplomatic. Similarly, on the Israeli side, strong coercion has forced Israel to make nearly every territorial withdrawal, beginning with the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the threat of U.S. sanctions led to Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and Sinai. On the Palestinian front, too, it was mass uprisings and violence that led to Israeli concessions.
In the absence of such pressure, however, the situation remains largely static. Israel feels no need to make additional concessions, and the Palestinians get no help from the international community when they are quiet. The international community leaps to intervene when there is a deterioration on the ground. The conclusion I draw is that the two sides have been making slow, incremental progress toward increasing separation and autonomy for the Palestinians, but at a very high price for both sides. More of that seems likely.
At this point, it's still hard to say what President Trump's approach is. Everyone seems to be projecting hopes and fears onto him without much basis for either. The hope on the Israeli right is that Trump changes things by allowing partial annexations and massive settlement construction to occur. So far that hasn't proven true. For the Palestinians, the hope is that Trump is so unorthodox and so independent of the foreign policy establishment that he will be willing to apply pressure in a way that no American president has done since [former president Jimmy] Carter. Some activists from the peace camp in both societies are encouraged by the composition of Trump's Cabinet, which includes some realist figures. But they do not appear to have the most influence over the Israeli-Palestinian issue right now.
Netanyahu repeatedly stresses that he has no Palestinian partner for peace. What does he mean by that, and is it fair?
I think Netanyahu is unfairly maligned as an ideologue, when in fact I think he is a politician who is driven mainly by polls and the desire to stay in power by getting enough of the centrist vote. He has flip-flopped on so many issues. He was for the Gaza disengagement before he was against it. He is supposedly against Abbas, when in fact he recognizes that there is no better situation for him than for Abbas to stay in power. The idea that there is no Palestinian partner for peace is one widely shared among Israelis, and in this sense it is a classic Netanyahu position to take: the vast majority of the public supports it, and he sounds tough by saying so. But he's also happy to engage in negotiations with that Palestinian non-partner. And he knows that that Palestinian non-partner is asking for no more than, and often considerably less than, what international law and the majority of the world's nations ostensibly support.
So, given the extent to which Netanyahu and his government favor the status quo — with some cabinet members even rejecting any independent Palestinian state — where do the Palestinians go from here?
The Palestinians are out of luck. The Arab states are willing to play footsie with Israel under the table, thereby reducing what little leverage the Palestinians have. The United States has been unwilling to apply the pressure necessary to get concessions from Israel. Europe is feckless. And yet the Palestinians are so thoroughly wedded to the strategy of liberation through U.S.-led negotiations that it will take a revolution to break them from it. So they are stuck in a sort of stasis. They depend on donor support and international goodwill, and for both of those they need to engage in the peace talks that they know won't succeed. But meanwhile the Palestinian leadership slowly loses credibility as its constituents see it knocking its head against the same wall, seemingly incapable of trying a different strategy. What we have seen for the past several decades, though, is that when Palestinians truly give up hope in help from outside, they take matters into their own hands, even if they know they won't achieve full liberation by doing so.
Is the time ripe for an escalation of violence?
The timing of these things is impossible to predict. Since fall 2015, there has been low-level violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It has subsided considerably, but it hasn't been totally extinguished. But the conditions for violence have been there for several years: a new generation of youth, with little memory of the devastation of the Second Intifada; a discredited leadership, seen as out of touch and incapable of achieving Palestinian goals; an outside world, including an Arab world, that is concerned with other priorities; and a sense among youth that the older generation has sold out and generally acquiesced in its oppression. That said, there are also strong counter-pressures: Israel's control of the West Bank is thorough. There are raids into and arrests within Palestinian population centers every night. The coordination between Palestinian and Israeli security forces is very tight. But more violence from Palestinians is inevitable so long as this status quo continues.
Netanyahu's critics are right that Israel's current course will deepen its isolation, but they are wrong that simply arguing to Israel that it is on a self-destructive course is sufficient to get it to wake up and change its policies. The incentives for Israel to end its occupation just aren't there at present. What cost is it really bearing for continuing it, other than finger-wagging from Obama administration officials? And the Obama administration officials are wrong, too, in threatening that Israel's current course will undermine its future as a democratic, Jewish state. We have to ask, if Israel is going to one day cease to be Jewish and democratic, why will that be? Because half the inhabitants in the territory under its control are not citizens and cannot vote in the institutions that control their lives? That's already the case today.