Friday, July 19, 2013

What Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks Will Need To Succeed

This afternoon's announcement of renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is welcome news. Even if the coming round of talks fail, the small chance of progress is an improvement over this unsustainable status quo. In this light, US Secretary of State John Kerry deserves considerable credit for locking in a commitment to peace talks from both sides. I noted yesterday that moving two sides to agree to peace talks is a messy and tenuous process. Secretary Kerry's big win today is a testament to his capable leadership as Secretary of State.

That being said, there is still a long road between where things are now and a sustainable peace agreement. It would be presumptuous to nix any prospect of success before the talks even get off the ground. However, there are three factors which pose major obstacles to a successful outcome (Professor Brent Sasley at UT Arlington has a few more):

1) Spoilers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, has already threatened to leave the coalition over the issue of dividing Jerusalem. Settler price tag attacks are also a distinct possibility given that land swaps in the West Bank are on the table. Hamas has flatly rejected the peace talks, calling them futile. A few barrages of rockets on Southern Israel could easily spoil chances for peace should Hamas get antsy over progress towards an agreement. Spoilers have yet to make their move, but they will move. They have done so every other time there have been peace talks. If this time is to be successful, parties to the talks will have to defeat these groups' ability to spoil the agreement.

2) Public Opinion. The negotiations test each side's ability to build public support for the agreement as it will be written. That of course assumes that either side makes an honest effort to negotiate in the first place. Many are doubtful that Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas even want a peace agreement in the first place, pointing to short-term political gain as the true motivation.  At the same time, spoilers on both sides are not lone actors - they are supported by sizable constituencies of Israelis and Palestinians who deeply mistrust the other side. Public opinion among parties to the conflict ranges from passively cynical to actively antagonistic. Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas are serious about a peace deal, shaping public opinion presents a major challenge to acceptance of the plan.

3) Pro-Israel community support in Washington. It's odd to list the role of pro-Israel groups in Washington as a potential liability to peace but the relationship between these groups and the Obama administration is extremely important. Despite Secretary Kerry's attempts to rally support for talks from the pro-Israel crowd in a recent AJC speech, most pro-Israel groups were silent in response. Kerry brought about peace talks largely without the support of these organizations. This apathy is not based in ill-intentions but in historically-motivated cynicism similar to what Israelis experience. 

As peace talks move forward, the US and Israel will not always be on the same page. When that happens, the pro-Israel community plays a critical role. Whether it sides with the US in supporting an agreement above short-term concessions or whether the Netanyahu administration is able to coopt the community to relieve US pressure on Israel is a crucial variable.  Given the pluralistic nature of this community, it's not something entirely in either the US' or Israel's control. However, Secretary Kerry must be careful to manage relations with pro-Israel groups well in order to enhance the trust which will be crucial for a sustainable peace in the Middle East. 


Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Missed Opportunity Model: Mideast Negotiation as a Two-Level Game

"About the time we can make the ends meet, somebody move the ends"
  - Herbert Hoover 

Israelis and Palestinians always say they want to negotiate for peace but it somehow never happens.  That's because supporting negotiations is almost always good politics, but actually negotiating is not.  Here's why.

The News

News that the Palestinian Authority did not approve Secretary of State Kerry's plan for renewed Mideast peace talks is disappointing but not particularly surprising.  Many Secretaries of State have tried and failed before to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.  In the coming days, Secretary Kerry will likely try to salvage the talks by framing the Palestinian rejection as a counter-offer to Israel.  However, Prime Minister Netanyahu is unlikely to agree to the Palestinian demands: Negotiations based on the 1967 lines, releasing Palestinian prisoners, and stopping settlement building.

The Puzzle

More difficult to understand is the sudden switch from cautious acceptance to what is more or less a rejection of the plan.  Signalling early enthusiasm only to switch to stonewalling is a pattern that plagues Mideast peace negotiations.  As early as this morning, news reports indicated the Palestinian leadership might look favorably upon the plan, which also has the backing of the Arab League.  Yet later today the plan was met with indecision from the Palestinian leadership.  

This particular incident is likely a matter of internal divisions in Palestinian politics.  But these switches (which are not unique to the Palestinians) are puzzling.  Why do Israeli and Palestinian leaders indicate a willingness to engage in peace talks only to stonewall later?  

Stonewalling is understandable.  Domestic constituencies, radical groups on both sides, and the prospect of likely failure are rational deterrents.  But given there challenges, it's puzzling that leaders express enthusiasm in the first place.  This morning, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinians were keen on making Secretary Kerry's mission succeed and called today's meeting "urgent."  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been equally enthusiastic.  On Sunday he called President Abbas and expressed hope for a resumption in peace talks.  What explains this enthusiastic rhetoric?

Partial Explanations

Western pressure plays a role.  Neither Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas has an incentive to say no to Secretary Kerry on the principle of peace talks given each side's relationship with the US.  But the Secretary's extensive time in the Middle East (6 trips in 6 months) and an extension of his current trip show that this is more than just rhetoric.  No doubt, he has discussed the specifics with both sides and asked for informal guarantees.  Given this drawn out process, jumping right to stonewalling would be politically feasible for both leaders.  This explanation is insufficient on its own.

Partisan politics plays a role as well.  Naftali Bennet, leader of Israel's right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi party has threatened a coalition crisis over negotiations with the Palestinians.  On the Palestinian side, Hamas has flatly rejected peace talks, calling them a "waste of time."  However, if partisanship were the main issue, both leaders could have been more pessimistic.  Cautious pessimism is a popular position among those who are party to the conflict, and it would have mitigated the blowback from the more partisan fringes now sounding off.  This explanation too is insufficient.

The Missed Opportunity Model

At the Geneva Peace Conference in 1973, Israel's Foreign Minister at the time Abba Eban remarked, "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."  The quote has become a common platitude among the pro-Israel crowd and sums up a strategy which both Israelis and Palestinians have used to avoid actual negotiations.  This strategy produces the best outcome for the rational incentives given by what I will call the Missed Opportunity Model.

In 1995, Professor James Fearon wrote a groundbreaking article about bargaining and war.  He asked why countries go to war when it's against their interest.  His answer is that for a bunch of reasons, both sides bargain too hard.  Fearon's model is game theoretic and full of algebraic proofs, but it is essentially a fancy venn diagram:




James Fearon, "Rationalist Explanations for War," International Organizations 3 no. 49 (1995): 387

The model is pointing out that when either Country A or Country B's offer falls outside the other's bargaining range, it becomes less costly to fight the war than to continue bargaining.  The set of all possible offers where both sides win the game is aply called the win-set.  It's all values inside the bargaining range, which is all kinds of awesome.

To make this model applicable to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, let's change two rules of the game.  First, instead of bargaining over war, the two sides are bargaining over a peace agreement.  This agreement involves costly concessions by both sides that neither is thrilled to make.  In other words, the win-set is now a lose-set.  Long-term benefits aren't irrelevant but let's assume they're not the most important thing at the moment.  Second, let's make this a two-level game.  The bargaining model is the second level.  The first level is a game in which supporting bargaining in and of itself carries a positive payoff for both sides, with a slight benefit if both sides are bargaining and a slight loss if one side rejects but the other side supports negotiation.  Here's the payoff matrix for the game-theory inclined (I welcome your improvements wholeheartedly).


This is a slightly modified Battle of the Sexes payoff matrix.  It's saying the best strategy for each side is to support negotiating since doing so always carries a payoff.  

The actual negotiating, however, inherently involves a loss.  By definition, negotiation means you give up something. That means that in the entire two-level game, your best strategy is to support negotiation but not actually negotiate.  It's like signing up for a subscription that gives you a free toaster for doing so, cancelling the subscription, and keeping the toaster. 

For this scheme to pay off however, you need to cancel the subscription before you get charged.  This is what Israel and the Palestinians do in negotiations.  In Fearon's model, the players will bargain as close to the outside of the other side's best offer without falling outside it.  In the Missed Opportunity Model, both sides will bargain as close as possible to the outside of the other side's best offer without falling inside it.  Missed opportunity isn't a mistake, it's a strategy. 

In fact, you could try to lure the other side into your bargaining range by obfuscating your true best offer and enticing your opponent.  With enthusiasm. And signalling a willingness to negotiate.

This explains, along with the factors mentioned earlier, why both Israel and the Palestinians begin rounds of talking about negotiation with willingness and enthusiasm, only to stonewall.  Talking about bargaining gets each side political capital.  They then stonewall to avoid the cost of actual negotiations and keep the payoff supporting negotiation.

What does all this mean for the US?

Given this model, Secretary Kerry's best strategy is to push each side to improve their best offer but not tell the other side exactly what that offer is.  By engaging this two-level game, Secretary Kerry can then move each side into the others' bargaining range, ensnaring them into actual negotiations.  Given the ongoing and private negotiations, it appears Secretary Kerry is playing the game well.  The question is whether the actual values for each of these variables will lead to ensnarement in negotiations when the theoretical rubber hits this empirical road.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Obama's No Terrorist But Morsi Ouster Means Change

The past few days have seen accusations by Egyptian demonstrators that President Obama has been "supporting terrorists" (see also here and here).  Rather than the normal partisan hackery, these accusations come from frustrated liberal Egyptians upset that the Obama administration recognized and worked with the Islamist-aligned government of ex-President Mohamed Morsi.  Liberal Egyptians are no fans of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and millions of them protested on June 30th to demand change, leading to Morsi's ouster last Wednesday.

Ironically, the Obama administration's decision to work with the Morsi administration was motivated by previous experience.  In 2006, Palestinians held legislative elections in which Hamas (an ideological sibling of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) won a surprising 74 out of 132 parliament seats, versus only 45 by the Fatah party (favored by the United States).  At the time, the George W. Bush administration gave Hamas the cold shoulder.  President Bush stated flatly that "the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally, Israel, and that people must renounce that part of their platform."  This policy attracted criticism since it ignored the will of a majority of Palestinians and impaired America's ability to influence outcomes in Gaza, including the 2007 violent takeover by Hamas. 

After the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) recognized Mohamed Morsi as the winner of Egyptian presidential election on June 30, 2012, the Obama administration tried to avoid the missteps of 2006.  President Obama called President Morsi to congratulate him and said he was interested in "working together with the new Egyptian president and all Egyptian political groups."  This was a marked shift from the Bush administration which, while working with Muslim Brotherhood-aligned parliamentarians was not nearly as conciliatory to Islamist movements when they gained real power, as Hamas did in 2006.  In addition to signalling a marked change of approach from the Bush era, part of the Obama administration's intent was to respect the "will of the people" in Egypt who had elected Mohamed Morsi by majority vote.  

This week's harsh criticism by Egyptians of the Obama administration is thus frustrating to many Washington policy makers.  Washington is criticized for not working with Hamas in 2006, but also for recognizing Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012.  The Obama administration's decision to work with the Brotherhood was intended to support democracy and respect the will of the people in the region - a stance the US has been criticized for not taking towards Hamas.  However, The US is now being criticized for not supporting liberal causes when they contradicted the platform of the duly elected leader of Egypt. 

The question of whether the US should support illiberal winners of free and fair elections is hardly a new one.*  However, it is a question which comes into renewed focus as Washington attempts to re-posture itself for a post-Morsi Egypt.  While liberals now have control of the narrative, Muslim Brotherhood supporters remain a major player in Egyptian politics.  

The United States thus finds itself in a catch-22 with regards to Middle East diplomacy.  Urbanization, social media, and the Arab Spring have prompted a need for the United States to have deeper relationships with multiple constituencies in Middle Eastern countries.  These constituencies are diverse, shift positions frequently, and often do not agree with one another on policy matters.  But the tradeoff for relationships with antagonistic constituencies is a less-decisive policy.  Policy-by-alignment will now give way to policy-by-consensus building in the Middle East.  It is no longer enough to have strong alignment with government policy alone.  The United States must now also have policy resonance with NGOs, civil society, political opposition, and citizen constituencies.  

Regardless of whether calling President Obama a terrorist supporter for working with President Morsi is fair (it's obviously not), the United States will now need to find a balance between resonating with multiple constituencies and taking the decisive policy stances of the past.

*See here for a political science take on the issue.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Israel Should Think Long-Term On Egypt

After massive protests yesterday in Egypt against President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military today gave the parties 48 hours to resolve their differences.  If they cannot do so, it will force a power transition in Egypt.  In the wake of the statement, five Egyptian ministers have resigned from the Morsi government: Tourism, Communications and IT, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Water, and Environment.  

Today's ultimatum sets up a showdown that is unlikely to be resolved without major and potentially violent conflict.  16 people have been killed so far in the protests.  The army's threat to intervene is credible, precedented, and supported by the throngs of people in Tahrir Square (though not necessarily by all Egyptians).  On the other hand, President Morsi is the elected leader of Egypt and likely to appeal to his base for legitimacy.  Despite a lack of progress towards economic recovery or political stability, the army's intervention could uproot the nascent democratic process in Egypt.  The Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) are also likely to mount major resistance against removing President Morsi.  In other words, neither side is likely to back down.

For Israel, the situation merits considerable caution.  The Egyptian military has positioned at lease 30 tanks on the Sinai-Gaza border for the first time in years.  Given their good post-1979 relationship with the Israel Defense Forces, Israel is likely to look favorably on Egyptian military intervention in the political crisis.  The fact that this intervention is against an Islamist who once referred to Jews as "apes and pigs" doesn't hurt either.  

However, Israel may be well-advised to temper its support.  The popularity of military intervention would wear off quickly in Egypt if it were to occur.  When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) held power in the months following President Mubarak's downfall in 2011, Egyptians became frustrated with its grip on power.  The excitement over a potential for change and progress will give way to similar feelings if the military again holds power for a long time.  Israel does not stand to benefit from aligning to closely with this regime.  Doing so would harm both its legitimacy and that of the military itself.  

In a greater sense, a more democratic Egypt in the long-term would be beneficial for Israel.  While there are strong anti-Israel voices in Egypt - not all of them fair - a neighbor with similar values would overall open up more opportunities for collaboration and interdependence.  Egyptians have proven tenacious in their thirst for better governance, and this tenacity shows a common respect for the values of representation, fairness, and justice between the two countries.  The path towards a better Israel-Egypt relationship will be long and rocky at best, but is worth the costs given the other sources of animosity against Israel in the region and the international community.  

As the dynamic and potentially dangerous situation continues to play out in Egypt, Israel should keep its analytical head above water.  It should consider the long-term as well as the immediate effects of any action it takes towards this precarious situation.