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Guest Writer: The Israeli-Palestinian 'Peace Process': Trapped in a Nash Equilibrium

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, mention of the great dictator’s name in any mass meeting could trigger a standing ovation. This became a problem. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells the story of a party meeting during which Stalin’s name is mentioned. Immediately every functionary on the dais and every person in the hall rose to his or her feet and started clapping. And clapping. And clapping. And clapping. Afterall, who would stop clapping first? Who would reveal less enthusiasm for the Great Leader than everyone else. And so, as the story goes, the applause continued for more than 11 minutes. Finally, one factory director on the dais stopped and sat down. Immediately everyone else stopped, and the meeting resumed. That night the factory director was arrested. After his interrogation he was given ten years in the Gulag and reminded: “Don’t ever be the first to stop clapping!”


Political scientists have a name for the predicament of those tired but still clapping communists-a “Nash equilibrium.” Named for the Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash (played by Russell Crowe in the film “A Beautiful Mind”), the stability of this pattern of collective behavior,this equilibrium, is produced by the inability of any of those caught in this predicament with one another to improve their situation by acting unilaterally. Unable to trust or coordinate a simultaneous change of behavior with their “comrades,” each clapper prefers to keep clapping, even though weary and with sore hands, to the risks of doing first what each wants someone else to do-be the first to stop clapping. And so the clapping continues until one clapper makes the fatal mistake of trying to improve the situation.

This is a very simple Nash Equilibrium in the sense that each player has exactly the same desired goal-to stop clapping and to get on with the meeting without being shot. But Nash equilibria also appear when there are considerable differences in the specific objectives of the players and considerable asymmetry in their relative power.

With these ideas in mind we can see that In a very real sense the continuous merry-go-round of American orchestrated negotiations involving Israelis and Palestinians toward a “two state solution” is exactly like endless clapping. The fundamental explanation for the stability of a pattern of fruitless negotiations staggering on, failing, then restarting under a slightly different name, failing, starting again under a slightly different name, failing, and so on, is that the four key (but not equal) main players in this “game” are caught in a Nash Equilibrium. That is to say that each player-the US government, the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, and what may be called the “peace process industry”-has objectives in mind they would much prefer to pursue in this domain than endless and substantively fruitless negotiations; but each player believes it will pay much higher costs trying to pursue those interests than continuing to clap-I mean continuing to pretend that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict-one state based on the 1949 Armistice Lines and the other based in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, to which they all pay lip service, is actually being advanced by their efforts.

Right-wing Israeli governments would prefer to be liberated from the Palestinian problem altogether, to see it removed from the agenda. They would prefer a free hand to expand settlements, eliminate any autonomous basis for Palestinian economic activity, squeeze Palestinians out of East Jerusalem, and push as many of them as possible, by immiseration and harassment, out of the West Bank entirely. For them continuing the negotiations to nowhere, with a hollowed out two-state slogan as their official framework, is suboptimal, but acceptable. Under the pretext that negotiations may be reaching a crucial stage, settlement construction or expansion can be encouraged as an urgent necessity and a brave battle to implement Jewish rights in the ancient homeland can be cleverly and rather successfully fought. Meanwhile the Israeli majority that vaguely supports a “two state solution” in return for “real peace” can be held at arm’s length. Even the international community has a hard time blaming the Israeli government since, afterall, it is participating with Palestinian representatives, in internationally sanctioned peace negotiations.

American Presidents as different as George W. Bush and Barack Obama would genuinely like to see an American brokered Israeli-Palestinian agreement to end the conflict based on two states living in peace with a shared capital in Jerusalem and a solution to the refugee problem based on generous compensation and symbolic rights of return operationalized via a lottery option. But no President has and almost certainly never will ever find it politically rational to exert the kind of pressure on Israel necessary to compel implementation of the concessions necessary for a sustainable peace. That being the case, serial pursuit of the mirage of a negotiated two state solution has sufficient rewards to justify the humiliations associated with repeated exposure of the weakness of American diplomacy on this issue. Most important in this regard is the protection from attacks by the Israel lobby that official US engagement with an Israeli government in peace negotiations provides. But US administrations also find it convenient to respond to European, third world, and Muslim criticism for Washington’s unbalanced policies toward the conflict by using the ongoing “peace process” to justify its “restraint” toward Israel.

Anyone who has read The Palestine Papers, the minutes of negotiating sessions held between Israel, the US, and the Palestinians from 1999 to 2010, can only marvel that Palestinian negotiators can continue to play the maddening game that these talks have become without their arteries popping from the high blood pressure that must result from repeated double-binds, transparent delaying tactics, and betrayals to which they are continuously subjected . Of course the Palestinian Authority would prefer a two state solution based on two real states. But with 636,000 Jews living east of the green line, an Israeli government whose highest priority is to prevent such an outcome, and Washington operating almost entirely as Israel’s lawyer, that is obviously unattainable. The (barely) acceptable alternative is to continue the charade of negotiations, moving from frameworks for negotiations that have failed to frameworks that will fail, but by doing so continue to collect hundreds of millions of dollars from the US and Europe that pay the salaries of PA employees, preserve VIP treatment for the Palestinian leadership, and support a half-way decent standard of living for most of those Palestinians living in Area A. If some prisoners can be released and if Israel must constrain at least some of the ruthlessness it might otherwise unleash on Palestinians in Areas B and C, so much the better.

And then there is the peace process industry. Legions of pundits, scholars commentators, funders, and conference organizers have built entire careers around both the hopes and fears that, in any iteration of this process, a peace based on two states could appear. Their speculations, warnings, maps, and advice fill the newspapers, blogging sites, and air-waves. While they themselves do not enforce the cycle of failure of talks, the redesign of the framework for talks, restart of talks, distractions and delays during talks, failure of talks, and so on, their nearly Messianic faith in the immortality of the possibility of the two state solution does protect the entire cycle by discouraging both protagonists and observers from thinking outside the outworn categories of two states to imagine other possibilities, including calling the bluff of those who constantly threaten to end the process. Those working so tirelessly within this industry, especially those who favor creation of two real states, would undoubtedly prefer the successful end of the process to its continuation. However, given the choice between a vanishingly small chance of success and having to develop and adopt an entirely new framework for pursuing values of justice, peace, equality, and democracy in this domain, they prefer the former.

Search for “Stalin” and “clapping” on Youtube and you will find that the Soviets found a solution to the Nash Equilibrium problem. After a sufficiently sustained period of enthusiastic applause by an audience pretending to be giddy with delight with the appearance of Stalin or the sound of his name, a loud bell would automatically sound, triggering immediate silence and allowing the assembled multitude to sit without fear of being sent to the Gulag or shot. No such easy solution is available in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” It is possible that one of the parties, probably the Palestinians, will stop clapping (and many are likely to be imprisoned or shot as a result), but unless outworn but still hegemonic conceptions are overturned, we’ll be hearing lots more clapping for quite some time.

Ian Lustick is an American political scientist and a specialist on the modern history and politics of the Middle East. He is the Bess W. Heyman Professor of Political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ian Lustick is a member of the American Political Science Association, the Association for Israel Studies, the Middle East Studies Association, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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