“Nathan Thrall does a brilliant job ...his argument is smart and hard to dispute.” ―The New York Times Book Review

“This June, Israel is marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Not surprisingly, a number of new books have appeared in this grim anniversary year.... By far the most cogent... is Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language They Understand, which surveys the last five decades and comes to a remarkable conclusion: the only way to produce some kind of movement toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to apply significant coercive force to the parties involved, and in particular to Israel.”―The New York Review of Books

“Life is short, and writings about Israel and the Palestinians can be very, very long. So it’s a good thing there’s Nathan Thrall. An American analyst with a severe allergy to conventional wisdom, Thrall has lived in Jerusalem since 2011, writing dense but rich reports for the International Crisis Group, and now The Only Language They Understand.” ―Time

“Brilliant.” ―Foreign Policy

“Thrall has consistently been one of the sharpest observers of the Israeli­Palestinian conflict and the United States’ role in trying to end it, and his most recent contribution, The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine, is true to form. ...The argument is a compelling one, and Thrall expertly marshals historical evidence to demonstrate his thesis that both sides respond to sticks rather than carrots. ...In focusing on the ways in which pressure has forced compromise, Thrall not only uses the historical record to great effect but also appeals to basic common sense. ...one cannot read The Only Language They Understand without acknowledging the power of his argument that force does indeed matter.” ―Foreign Affairs

“One of the best-informed and most trenchant observers of the conflict.”―Financial Times

“Excellent.” ―The National Interest

“Indispensable.” ―The Forward

“Even the most ardent defenders of Israeli policies...should acknowledge Thrall’s mastery to facts on the ground, historical context and diplomatic tactics and strategies on all sides. ... Everyone interested in peace between Israelis and Palestinians will learn something and find something to ponder in this counter-intuitive, controversial and...compelling book.” ―The Jerusalem Post

“Readers of the New York Review of Books and other intellectual publications know Nathan Thrall to be one of the best-informed, most insightful, and least polemical analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The book’s title announces his bold conclusion: that the status quo will remain in place indefinitely unless the two sides are forced to change it—and no one is prepared to exert such force. ...The Only Language They Understand brings unparalleled clarity to the dynamics of Israeli-Palestinian relations, and is an essential guide to the history, personalities, and ideas behind the conflict.” ―Jewish Book Council

“Thrall’s book is rich with well researched, well argued, and often provocative analyses... [A]n in memoriam to a failed and delusional peace process, a scathing critique against political leaders who have lost touch with their own people and a j’accuse against well-meaning liberals who, despite their best intentions, fail to understand that the occupation and Israel cannot be treated as separate entities.” ―Journal of Peace Research

“The book is important, interesting, an easy read, and it serves as a crucial resource for the most significant core issues that occupy the news cycle — from Jerusalem to Gaza. It also gives original and instructive answers to the failure of the peace process that go beyond simply casting blame on one side or another. ...refreshing and overdue.” ―+972

“A troubling and truculent history of the still-stalemated search for peace in the Middle East. ...An assiduous assault on the management of the apparently defunct peace process that has eluded Israel and Palestine.” ―Kirkus Reviews

“Most welcome… A cogent and lucid reconstruction of the obstacles that prevent an acceptable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” ―Journal of Palestine Studies

“A knowledgeable and bold retelling of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that forces readers to take a serious and fresh look at their assumptions. Throughout its counterintuitive retelling of this history, it offers an unusually provocative and sometimes startling contribution to the genre.” ―Mosaic Magazine, Best Books of 2018

“Thrall makes a persuasive case that instead of leaving the Israelis and Palestinians alone or limply warning of the peril facing Israeli democracy if a two-state solution isn't achieved, the only weapon in the US arsenal that has ever produced meaningful gains on the issue is force―diplomatic, economic, or otherwise.” ―Vice

“Thanks to considerable prepublication buzz, Thrall’s argument in the first chapter is familiar to many Israel-Palestine watchers. ...[Israel] 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.” ―Middle East Journal

“Thrall writes very knowledgeably about internal Palestinian affairs. The chapters dealing with the relations between Hamas and Fatah are a model of informative scholarship.” ―Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs

“Nathan Thrall, an analyst with the International Crisis Group and consummate observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adds substantially to our understand of the status quo in his perfectly timed new volume.” ―Tablet

“Informed by a deep understanding of US, Israeli and Palestinian politics. It is packed with new ideas and insights, and it poses a serious challenge to the conventional wisdom on the subject.” ―Middle East Eye

“An important new book by Nathan Thrall, The Only Language They Understand, eloquently expresses what has long been clear: that there is no hope of a breakthrough unless the international community forces it on the parties.”―The Independent

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In a myth-busting analysis of the world’s most intractable conflict, a star of Middle East reporting, “one of the most important writers” in the field (The New York Times), argues that only one weapon has yielded progress: force.

Scattered over the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea lie the remnants of failed peace proposals, international summits, secret negotiations, UN resolutions, and state-building efforts. The conventional story is that these well-meaning attempts at peacemaking were repeatedly, perhaps terminally, thwarted by violence. 

Through a rich interweaving of reportage, historical narrative, and powerful analysis, Nathan Thrall presents a startling counter-history. He shows that force―including but not limited to violence―has impelled each side to make its largest concessions, from Palestinian acceptance of a two-state solution to Israeli territorial withdrawals. This simple fact has been neglected by the world powers, which have expended countless resources on initiatives meant to diminish friction between the parties. By quashing any hint of confrontation, promising an imminent negotiated solution, facilitating security cooperation, developing the institutions of a still unborn Palestinian state, and providing bounteous economic and military assistance, the United States and Europe have merely entrenched the conflict by lessening the incentives to end it. Thrall’s important book upends the beliefs steering these failed policies, revealing how the aversion of pain, not the promise of peace, has driven compromise for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Published as Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza reaches its fiftieth anniversary, which is also the centenary of the Balfour Declaration that first promised a Jewish national home in Palestine, The Only Language They Understand advances a bold thesis that shatters ingrained positions of both left and right and provides a new and eye-opening understanding of this most vexed of lands.

Read an excerpt in The Guardian.

“Nathan Thrall’s commentary on the most intractable dispute of our time is something shocking: it is fair. Into a debate consumed by ferocious passions he enters dispassionately, except that he has a passion for peace. For this reason he is uncommonly trustworthy. His familiarity with the infamous complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian tangle is remarkable, as is his mental composure. This learned and candid book is a genuine contribution to our understanding of an increasingly frightening conflict.”
―Leon Wieseltier


“Both the book and the title of The Only Language They Understand perfectly encapsulate the attitudes of the two sides to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The title also illustrates Thrall’s main thesis: that over the entire hundred years of this conflict, only force or the threat of force, whether military, political, economic, diplomatic or in another form, has obligated the two sides to compromise. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand why this conflict is so intractable and remains unresolved.”
―Rashid Khalidi, author of Brokers of Deceit and Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies, Columbia University


“These are the toughest criticisms anywhere of decades of Israeli policy. The failings of the Palestinians are here as well―but the arrows are aimed at Jerusalem. Serious supporters of Israel should have their answers ready―or be prepared to lose debates to opponents quoting Nathan Thrall.”
―Elliott Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor, George W. Bush administration


“A terrific piece of analysis by a keen and empathic observer of the region.”
―Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower and Thirteen Days in September


“Nathan Thrall argues with great power and lucidity that the only language the two sides to the conflict understand is force. This strong view, strongly held by Thrall, has serious political implications. He may be right, he may be wrong, but he must be read by anyone who hasn’t given up the idea and the hope of ending this bloody conflict.”
―Avishai Margalit, author of On Compromise and Rotten Compromises


“For those who look at the Middle East and throw up their hands at a hopeless morass, Nathan Thrall’s brilliant book is a compelling corrective. This most well-informed and well-connected of experts gives rigorous attention to the reality lurking behind the myths: that in this seemingly frozen conflict, carefully applied power and assiduous compulsion have often been the midwives of progress. Eloquent, fact-rich, full of vivid characters, and relentlessly contemporary in its narrative, The Only Language They Understand is a withering indictment of conventional wisdom―and a necessary, essential book.”
―Mark Danner, author of Spiral: Trapped in the Forever War

About the Author


Nathan Thrall is the author of The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. He is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books and is the Director of the Arab-Israeli Project at the International Crisis Group, for which he has covered Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza since 2010. His writing has also appeared in Foreign Affairs, GQ, The Guardian Long Read, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. His analysis is often featured in print and broadcast media, including the BBC, Bloomberg News, CNN, Democracy Now!, the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Economist, The New York Times, PRI, Time, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and daughters.