Why Palestine Can't Deliver Peace
Three necessary and improbable conditions for settling the conflict
My staunchly pro-Israel views are based on a general pessimism about the possibility of the Palestinians being able to make peace. In service of my argument, I’ve sometimes pointed to polling data showing that most Palestinians have very extreme views. When the majority of the people of Gaza reject Israel’s right to exist, how can there ever be peace?
Yet one thing I believe is important to point out is that I think even this framing of the argument grants too much to the other side. Say I point to a poll showing that Palestinians love Islamic Jihad. That makes it sound like if one eventually gets to a point where 55% of Palestinians say they want a two-state solution and accept Israel’s right to exist, the conflict would be over. Yet this ignores how political processes actually play out in the real world.
In the free speech debate, there’s something called the “heckler’s veto,” or the “assassin’s veto.” The basic idea is that we ask what kinds of incentives we create when bad actors can shut down speech, either by disrupting events or killing someone. A similar principle applies in geopolitics. The only way two sides can have peace is if there is no major faction within a society willing to disrupt the process, or, if one does exist, their neighbors and co-nationals will work to crush them. When the broader population cannot do that, we can say that extremists hold a “spoiler’s veto” over the process.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, due to Israel being less oppressive towards the Palestinians, a slight majority of that population starts to favor realistic negotiations to end the conflict. The people of the West Bank and Gaza have an election, and the Reasonable Arab (RA) Party wins 60% of the vote, compared to 40% for the Islamist Lunatics (IL). What happens at that point?
If the members of the losing party were the types to accept the will of the majority of voters, then they wouldn’t be called Islamist Lunatics. Upon losing, there’s a good chance they start launching missiles and planning attacks against Israel, if they haven’t been doing so previously. Perhaps they start assassinating Reasonable Arab leaders. Israel has to respond to new provocations, and so all the good will that the Jews created that allowed the RAs to win elections in the first place evaporates. All of this ignores regional actors like Hezbollah and Iran who might also oppose peace.
Its strategy could backfire if IL causes outrage and disgust among fellow Palestinians, which makes them an even smaller minority. But remember, the reason why this is such an intractable conflict in the first place is because Arabs care about the crimes of Jews a lot more than they care about what Arabs do to one another. If history is any guide, an attack by Palestinians that draws an Israeli response will only increase hostility towards Israel.
Let’s imagine, once again hypothetically, that RA is at some point able to take office, rule, and move forward with negotiations. Every step in the process of finding a permanent solution to the conflict creates new opportunities for IL to either assassinate moderate Palestinian leaders or strike out against Israel and play the role of spoilers. And once a Palestinian state is formed, the problem doesn’t go away. What guarantees does Israel have that the Palestinian state won’t fall apart as soon as it has formed, given the almost unblemished record of Arabs being unable to build stable and functioning societies in the aftermath of attempts to create a new political order?
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One might ask, if achieving peace is so hard, then, and small groups of fanatics may be able to throw things off course at any time, how does any conflict ever end? What’s required is a societal consensus against extremists, or at least the institutional capacity to restrict the ability of minorities to play the role of spoiler. Americans are nationalistic, but if a group of our fellow citizens were lobbing missiles at Mexico, maybe 5% of the population would support them for getting revenge for the border crisis or something, but almost the entirety of the rest of society, including most importantly, functional law enforcement agencies, would be sure to come down hard on them and put an end to the organization. If 25% of Americans wanted war with Mexico, and that section of the population provided passive or active support to a few thousand men willing to die to make it happen, maintaining peace between the two countries would be extremely difficult.
One could argue that Israel also has a spoiler’s veto problem. In 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated over his support for the Oslo Accords. The settler movement can also be considered as spoilers, often provoking the Palestinians. That said, Israel has shown some capacity to enforce collective decisions arrived at through the political process, as when Ariel Sharon uprooted Jewish settlers from Gaza in 2005. It’s just much harder to imagine Palestinian leaders being able to functionally commit Arab-on-Arab violence for the sake of giving land to Jews. Part of this is because Palestinian opinion is so extreme, but it’s also because Palestinian society doesn’t have institutions strong enough to make difficult decisions and then carry them out. People talk about the Palestinian Authority ruling Gaza after the war is over, but it doesn’t even really control the West Bank, having to rely on Israel for basic functions like security and collecting taxes.
In sum, there are at least three necessary conditions for Palestinian society being able to achieve a settlement with Israel.
Palestinian opinion would need to be less hostile to Jews and the idea of living side-by-side with them.
Even if enough of the population did change their views, Palestinian society would need to have the institutions and the will to prevent spoilers from ruining the process of getting to a two-state solution.
Israel would need to be confident that the new Palestinian state would be stable, able and willing to clamp down on diehards who still can’t stand the thought of a Jewish state and want to fight to destroy it.
I see no reason to be optimistic on any of these counts. People debate Palestinian opinion and whether it can change for the better as if that is the only thing worth arguing about. Those who think Israel should stop fighting in Gaza hope that doing so can induce a shift in Palestinian attitudes. But that would just be step one of a long process where extremists will have the opportunity to act as spoilers every step of the way.
The need to build institutions does not refer to a trivial undertaking. In fact, the question of how to do so in developing countries is one of the most fundamental questions in political science. Much of the world has never gotten there, and across Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, there are countless examples where the central state fails in its most basic task of achieving a monopoly on the use of force. Wikipedia currently lists over 20 countries experiencing civil war right now, with some of them involving governments fighting on multiple fronts. Here’s a map showing different kinds of armed conflict as of 2023.
I suspect that, since most conflicts don’t make headlines, people underestimate how dysfunctional much of the developing world is and therefore the challenges involved in giving Palestinians a stable society. If any people doesn’t have the historic and cultural preconditions for statehood, it is this one. Palestinian society is rife with extremism, dependent on outside aid, has no history of functioning institutions, and practically defines itself in terms of a struggle against a much more powerful enemy. Bukele’s successes are so shocking because the norm is that third world states that have been torn apart by violence for a long time tend to stay that way. This is one lesson that American leaders either never knew or forgot when they went around undertaking regime change wars throughout the Middle East in the decade and a half after 9/11 and just assuming something better would pop up and replace previous governments. Most civil wars are recurring civil wars, that is, conflicts that had been settled for a while but then flared up again. Achieving a somewhat permanent peace is extremely difficult once the fighting begins or a previous regime collapses.
If one wants to quibble that the problem of the spoiler’s veto is just as bad on the Israeli side, I don’t agree for the reasons discussed above. However, even if that argument is correct, that should make one even more pessimistic about the prospects for peace. Instead of one side being unable to make reasonable concessions to arrive at a lasting settlement, both sides are. In which case, what do we do? I say we pick the culture and civilization that we think has more value and cheer for it to win, and to me that’s not a difficult decision.
Where does that leave us? Again, the only path forward for Israel is continuing to kill Hamas leadership, and seeking the strategy of depopulating Gaza by trying to get someone else in the world to take the people of the enclave as refugees. There is growing evidence that the Israelis are taking my advice, and for the plan to be feasible one might only have to wait for a Republican president. If even a significant minority of Gazans goes elsewhere, it will make life much more difficult for Hamas and the Palestinian problem a lot more manageable, as part of a longer process of the Arabs losing hope of ever destroying Israel.
This path has many costs and dangers, but it strikes me as imminently more sensible than believing that Palestinian society could both change its attitude towards Jews and do so at the same time that it builds functioning institutions, accomplishing something that tends to be difficult for poor societies even under the most favorable conditions.