Bad strategies and strange bedfellows

Why does it often seem like a long-term settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be reached? The easy — and false — answer is that one side or the other just doesn't want peace. That it will stop at nothing until the other side is annihilated. While it is certainly true that some members of each side believe this, the idea that each side is some monolithic entity wanting only one thing is a convenient fiction for spurring hatred, nothing more.

Neither Israel nor Palestine is a unitary actor. The people who make up Israel and Palestine have diverse preferences, in particular over how to address the defining conflict of the era. Like-minded people on both sides join together into factions that then jockey for dominance. Some of these factions on both sides would take peace in an instant if any reasonable offer were made.

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How can we know this? Let's start with the Palestinians in Gaza. Surely, given Gaza's support for Hamas, we can assume that its residents are uniform in their desire for more violence and their need for the destruction of Israel, right? Well, let's look a little more carefully at Hamas. Hamas is a reasonably complex organization with military and political wings. At the same time it performs horrific acts of deplorable violence — and there is absolutely no question that it does, with Israeli and Palestinian targets — it also provides essential social services to a desperately poor population. And it at times has spent a lot more money doing the latter than the former.

So, what do we make of this? Is Hamas secretly good? No, of course not. But it has acted for some time as the only functioning entity providing basic services to its population, and has garnered a great deal of support for doing so, support that exists independently of the violence it causes. Within its group of supporters, there are those who will not stop fighting until Israel is destroyed, but there are also those whose support arises from gratitude for services rendered and would easily support a two-state solution and a joint right to exist. These individuals are the moderates who might make partners for peace.

Now consider Israel. Israel is a parliamentary democracy with 13 parties holding seats in the Knesset and over 20 more contesting for seats. Given this diversity, it seems strange to assume that all 30-odd active parties in Israel have the same general perspective on anything, let alone this conflict. Among the Israeli supporters of these parties exists the entire spectrum of views on the feasibility of peace agreements. In other words, it is not difficult to identify Israeli moderates willing to negotiate.

So there is a range of preferences toward peace among the people on both sides of the conflict. This is not just an academic point, however; factionalism on both sides helps to drive the conflict. During times of peace, Hamas benefits most from providing social services and doing it well. Resources and organizational focus help achieve this goal, driving internal dominance in Hamas toward factions more concerned with political aims. Similarly, during peacetime the threat of violence diminishes, reducing the salience of security as a political aim in Israel. This improves the electoral position of parties focused on maintaining peace and improving economic performance and social welfare. In other words, during peacetime, moderates have a political advantage. Because of this, in the absence of violence, peace can be self-sustaining.

During times of war, however, Hamas benefits most by showing that it is the organization most capable of forcing Israel to back down, which it does via indiscriminate violence. Resources and organizational focus flow toward this goal, driving internal dominance in Hamas toward factions more concerned with military aims. Military aims also gain traction as services become more difficult to deliver, as they have since the closing of Gaza's borders. Similarly, during wartime the threat of violence becomes extraordinarily salient among Israelis, and citizens rally around the flag. This improves the electoral position of parties focused on defeating Hamas. In other words, during wartime extremists (and incumbents) have a political advantage. Because of this, in the presence of violence, conflict can be self-sustaining as well.

What should you do if you're an extremist who wants to ensure your own dominance? If you're on the Palestinian side you push for terrorist attacks whenever you can, in the hope of provoking Israel and moving the conflict to a wartime footing. If you're on the Israeli side, you illustrate the weakness of the moderate Palestinian factions whenever possible, expanding settlements in times of peace and utilizing collective punishment at any infraction, again in the hope of moving the conflict to a wartime footing. Both sides' strategies are horrible if the goal is peace, but extremely effective if the goal is the maintenance of conflict, which leads to continued dominance of their factions.

What's worse, the extremist factions on each side effectively prop each other up. Militant Palestinians ensure that security remains salient in Israel, which helps parties that will put in place repressive measures dominate Israeli elections. In turn, this helps ensure that Palestinians support militants. It's a vicious cycle driven by political gain as much or more than eternal hatreds.

Siegel is an associate professor of political science at Duke University.