(a short exercise in rational choice)
Many people, including supporters of the two state solution, have argued recently that the United States should not apply pressure on Israel in order to make it leave the West Bank. Their basic claim is that since evacuating the West Bank is in the long term interest of Israel, Israel, being a democracy, would do so itself, when the right time will come (for example, when it will face a reliable Palestinian leadership and receive assurances for its security). The role of the international community, these people argue, is to create the right conditions for such withdrawal. In Obama’s White House, it is said that Dennis Ross holds such view.
I will try to explain why I disagree with this approach, using something like a Rational Choice model. In short, Rational Choice theory claims that all humans try to maximize advantages by weighting costs against benefits when taking decisions. It sounds pretty self-evident, but there has been a lot of criticism regarding this notion. People might also argue that putting the Middle East and “rational” in the same sentence is somewhat absurd. However, I think that this could be a useful exercise for understanding the political dynamics in Israel. The main advantage of this line of reasoning is that it frees us from questions of ideology or character, which tend to blur our judgment.
The basic assumption of this model is that no leader will take an action that is likely to bring his downfall. In this context, we should remember that Israel’s political system is very unstable. It is one of the most direct systems in the West, which makes it very easy to bring down a Prime Minister.
Let’s look at Benjamin Netanyahu’s government: if he even declares he is going to evacuate settlements, let alone split Jerusalem, his rightwing partners will leave his government. Theoretically, Kadima and Labor could save him in the name of peace, but Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak are rational actors as well (for the sake of this debate. Nobody knows what goes on in Barak’s mind). What do you think will happen when they have a shot at getting Netanyahu out of the way and going immediately to elections? Naturally, they won’t do it over the peace process, because their voters would punish them. It will be on some side issue, but the outcome will be just the same: the government falls and we would have elections.
Netanyahu, of all people, knows that: this is exactly what happened to him in his previous term as PM: after hesitating for two years, he handed Hebron to the Palestinians. The settlers left the government, the Left imposed new elections in 1999, and Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak.
But even if our leader is able to pull it off politically, his troubles are just beginning: Every Prime Minister that will try to evacuate settlements will have to confront the settlers and their establishment for what would be their political showdown. The settlers will have nothing more to loss; all scenarios, from a fierce political fight to a civil war, are possible. Israel had around 9,000 settlers in Gaza, most of them considered “moderates” or non-ideological – and still, evacuating them left a political and social trauma that the country has yet to overcome. The offers made by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert to the Palestinians would have had at least ten times this number of hardcore ideologist evacuated. I don’t think anyone can tell which way this might go. And here is the real nugget: estimates are that around 25 percent of combat soldiers in Israel are national-religious, some of them already declared that they wouldn’t take part in evacuations of Jews.
I’m not saying evacuating the settlements is impossible. I’m just claiming that it will be very hard to carry out. All evidence from the past show how high the cost of handing territory to the Palestinians is: out of the three PM’s who tried to do this, one (Netanyahu) fell from power, the other (Sharon) had to split his own party and didn’t finish the job, and a third (Rabin) paid with his life.
Here is the heart of the matter: an Israeli leader who considers withdrawal from the West Bank and evacuation of settlements needs to ask himself what’s the political price he might pay, and compare it with the political price of maintaining the status quo. The lower the cost of the status quo is, the less likely is the Israeli leader to evacuate settlements.
In order to increase the likelihood of evacuation, one must increase the political cost of maintaining the status quo (lowering the cost of evacuation doesn’t seem very likely). Unless we do so, the Israeli leader is likely to avoid negotiations or negotiate forever, hoping that political circumstances might change in his favor.
The important thing to understand is that all of this is happening regardless of the Palestinians. It doesn’t matter whether Hamas or Fatah is in power, if they are arming themselves for war or if they all become Zionists. The Israeli PM will be faced with the same dilemma.
There are several ways I can think of to increase the cost of the status quo on the Israeli leader:
(a) Military pressure on Israel (war, terror attacks): this has worked for Egypt: after failing to receive an Israeli response to the 1971 negotiations offer, the Egyptians’ attack in 1973 led to the peace agreement and an Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. It also worked for the Palestinians in the past: the first Intifada led to the Madrid conference and the Oslo agreement, and the second Intifada led to the withdrawal from Gaza. In all cases the Arab side lost in the battlefield but had diplomatic achievements afterward.
(b) Boycott: economic and diplomatic isolation that will make the status quo unbearable for Israelis.
(c) Diplomatic pressure: preventing diplomatic gains from the Israeli leaders, presenting terms for issues that are important to the Israeli PM, creating a crisis atmosphere which would hurt him politically.
There are also other solutions for the game:
(d) Changing the rules: if the Israeli leader is likely to fall when trying to withdraw, prevent his fall or elect him for limited term(s) so he doesn’t need to worry about re-elections. This can be achieved by changing the Israeli governing and election system.
(e) Internal pressure: have the public persuade the leader to act.
Naturally, option A (military pressure) is out of the question. Option D (which was what got the French out of Algeria) is not very likely in the Israeli case right now: attempts to change the system failed in the past and will fail in the near future, as there is a majority of MK’s who would lose from such a change.
Option E is not a real option, since the Israeli public is faced with basically the same dilemma its leaders are: if everything is OK right now, why go through the painful and dangerous process of leaving the West Bank? There must be an incentive, or Israelis wouldn’t ask their leader to withdraw.
The boycott (option B) is not a very good option. It is extremely hard to organize and carry out, and success is not guaranteed. The Apartheid in South Africa collapsed, but I can think of many more cases in which sanctions actually strengthened the regime.
We are left with option C, the diplomatic pressure. it is the cheapest option, the easiest to carry out, and probably the most honest and moral. If you truly support Israel but want to see it out of the West Bank, you should support diplomatic pressure on the Israeli government. It might even help the Israeli Prime Minister to convince the Israeli public that he had no option but to go through the painful process of evacuation settlements.
When discussing Rational Choice, models tend to look too abstract, or the opposite – too simple and self-evident. According to the way I presented things, one can say that even if the chairman of Merez becomes Prime Minister he might chose not to evacuate settlements. My response is that (a) we shouldn’t rule this out, and (b) as long as the current dynamic exists, Meretz’s chairman won’t be Prime Minister, so it is of no importance.
A greater danger is that the model seems too self-evident. In a way, everything I wrote can be summarized in the sentence: “Israel doesn’t evacuate settlements because it’s too hard”. Still, I think that this theoretical exercise is useful in evaluating the possible effectiveness of other solutions.
Take for example the Dennis Ross approach, cited above: even if we succeed in creating “favorable conditions” for an Israeli withdrawal by applying pressure on the Palestinian side, how do we change the dynamic on the Israeli side? What would make an Israeli leader risk his neck (literally) when the political status quo is sustainable? And here is the real question: since it is in the interest of all Israeli PMs to portray the situation as one which doesn’t call for withdrawal immediately (for the reasons stated above) how do we know when the “favorite conditions” have arrived?
What do you think of this issue? Naturally, if you oppose the two state solution you are not part of this game (though you are more than welcomed to comment), since the challenge we deal with is from those who support an Israeli withdrawal but oppose applying pressure on the Israeli side. Remember also that I didn’t discuss ideology or personality here, though I must say that in Netanyahu’s case, they all add to the likelihood he will choose to maintain the status quo for as long as he can.