(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.