Competing explanations, no definitive evidence

In debates about an Israeli-Palestinian resolution, some on both sides make the following argument:

We cannot trust them. They have not said they would concede on the core issues (e.g. land, Jerusalem, refugees). They do not prepare their people for a major compromise and, in fact, they rhetorically reinforce their existing, maximalist position. They will never compromise, they don’t accept us etc.

Let’s call this the Core Belief explanation, as in they reject our core beliefs (and will never change, or at least not for decades).

But there are at least two other explanations for exactly the same behavior and speeches.

The first is about bargaining. Leaders do not want to concede major issues before the start of negotiations. The big concessions and tradeoffs actually would come in the middle to end of the talks, not before the talks even start. So if the Palestinian leadership starts telling the Palestinian people that they will never exercise the refugees’ right of return to Haifa or Lod or other places inside pre-1967 Israel OR if the Israeli leaders start explaining to the Israeli people that Palestinians will have sovereignty in Wadi Joz, Silwan, Sheikh Jarrah, and other Arab neighborhoods in inner East Jerusalem, it will be a negotiating disaster. The other side will pocket the concession without ever having had to make a counter-concession.

So they don’t start to explain in advance about concessions. That’s one other explanation.

The second alternative is about domestic politics. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders know they will face a very difficult fight to sell a two-state agreement (versions #1 or 2 in my previous post) to their own publics. They want to stay in office. An agreement will involve wrenching changes and heated, if not violent, opposition. Given that, a leader will only tell the public about such concessions when the deal is at hand and the positive tradeoff – the other side’s concessions – are apparent and can act a a counterweight to what will be lost.

So, again, they don’t start to explain in advance about concessions.

The problem is that the same evidence in the absence of talks confirms all three explanations – core beliefs, bargaining, and the primacy of domestic politics. The only way to differentiate between the three explanations is to pursue an agreement and see if you can achieve it.

If the core beliefs explanation prevails and you pursue an agreement, you will be stymied and perhaps endanger yourself. If it is a domestic politics and/or bargaining explanation and you do NOT pursue an agreement, you will miss the chance to resolve the conflict. If you achieve one, it shows the core beliefs argument was not valid.

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