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March 20, 2006

Israeli Elections: Prisoners' Dilemma
Posted by Gayle Meyers

Kadima jumped six seats in a poll released last week after the March 14 Israeli raid on a Jericho jail to extract six Palestinians accused of murdering an Israeli cabinet minister.  Political opponents are accusing party leader and acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of ordering the raid for political gain.  The accusations mirror those thrown at Prime Minister Menachem Begin for bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor just before elections in 1981 and Prime Minister Shimon Peres for launching a raid into Lebanonjust before elections in 1996.  In spite of those accusations, there is a pretty broad consensus in Israel that the raid was the right thing to do, because Hamas had indicated it would free the prisoners. Likud also gained in the poll, adding two seats while Labor lost two. 

Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister and ambassador to the United Nations, has been portraying himself as a tough leader experienced in national security, the only candidate qualified to meet Israel’s military challenges.  In rhetoric similar to President Bush’s 2004 election campaign, Netanyahu’s ads and speeches emphasize the threat.  One TV commercial shows a giant ball of fire, representing the threat of international terror, ready to engulf Israel, and another features the marching feet of Hamas brigades.  Having set up the problem, Netanyahu shows himself to be the answer.  He invokes his older brother Yonatan, who died while commanding Israel’s dramatic rescue of hostages at Entebbeairport in 1976, and reminds voters that while he was serving in an elite special operations unit in the army, Olmert did his mandatory military service as a journalist for the army newspaper.

Likud seems to be running the most energetic campaign of all the parties. Observers say that this election is much more subdued than previous ones and that roadside banners promoting candidates are sparser than usual. Likud, however, seems to maintain a strong visual presence on the sides of the roads, overwhelming other contenders.

Likud may have the most to gain by campaigning. A Kadima victory seems nearly certain, allowing Olmert to coast a bit, but the next few years will look very different in Israel depending on whether the party has enough strength to stand up to a conservative bloc led by Likud. The stronger Likud’s showing in the polls, the greater bargaining power Netanyahu will have for his party and for himself, even if they remain in the parliamentary opposition.

I’d like to continue with the idea of coordinated unilateralism that I raised in my last post. Does it have a place in progressive foreign policy, or is it too similar to President Bush’s reliance on ad hoc agreements (such as the Proliferation Security Initiative as opposed to established nonproliferation treaties) and “coalitions of the willing”?

In the case of the Middle East, the realistic question is not whether parties will act unilaterally, but whether they will coordinate their actions. Israelis and Palestinians alike are bitter about their last forays into negotiations: the Oslo peace process, which started in 1993 with optimism but led to unfulfilled promises, and the 2000 Camp David summit, which failed dramatically and led each side to blame the other for not being willing to make the necessary compromises. The temptation, therefore, is to act unilaterally.

The situation is like a classic prisoner’s dilemma game. In the absence of negotiations, each side can take a unilateral action that escalates the conflict (e.g. Israelis expanding West Bank settlements or Palestinians launching suicide attacks) or one that de-escalates the conflict (e.g. Israelis refraining from “targeted killings” of Palestinian terrorist fighters or Palestinians maintaining a “lull” in attacks.) Neither side wants to be alone in compromising, so they choose the escalatory track.

The role of a third party such as the United States should be to help the parties understand the benefits of de-escalation and increase their confidence that a positive move will be met by a similar gesture from the other side. While progressives should uphold the notion of negotiated agreements to international problems, they also should seek creative, realistic solutions. Coordinated unilateralism is one of them.


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