At a press conference a few weeks ago, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon explained the government’s attempts to influence events in Gaza through both military action and pressure on the general population. “Palestinians in Gaza know the truth,” he asserted. They understood that the Hamas regime was responsible for their woes, and would act against it. “A combination of steps will bring an end to the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Ramon said.
Ramon was half right. Nothing affects Palestinian public opinion like Israel actions – just as nothing affects Israeli public opinion like Israeli actions. But as the latest Palestinian poll results show, the reaction is usually in the opposite direction of what the initiator of the original action expected. Ehud Barak’s attempt to put the Palestinians in a diplomatic corner in the summer of 2000 did not produce an agreement to his liking. It produced popular anger that ignited into an intifada. The intifada did not push Israel to make a better deal; it destroyed Israeli faith in negotiations.
The most precent poll by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) shows the reaction to recent Israel actions and inactions – pressure on the civilian population in Gaza, continued settlement, failure to advance in the Annapolis process:
…change included increased popularity of Hamas and its leadership, increased support for its positions and legitimacy, and greater satisfaction with its performance…
Contrary to what Ramon expected, Israel strengthened the Hamas government.
The flaw in Ramon’s analysis, if it’s any comfort, also fits a known pattern, as laid out by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and fellow researcher Jonathan Renshon in their article “Why Hawks Win” last year in Foreign Policy (If you missed the article, put in on your required reading list now):
Several well-known laboratory demonstrations have examined the way people assess their adversary’s intelligence, willingness to negotiate, and hostility, as well as the way they view their own position…
Even when people are aware of the context and possible constraints on another party’s behavior, they often do not factor it in when assessing the other side’s motives. Yet, people still assume that outside observers grasp the constraints on their own behavior…
That is: people expect empathy but don’t show empathy. Ramon expects the Palestinians to see things as he does: This is all because of Hamas. Palestinians – or at least the uncertain center among Palestinians – did not respond that way. Under attack, they rallied around Hamas. Those who think out their support for terror attacks expect that Israelis will understand that this is a reaction to their unbearable suffering. Most Israelis respond by concluding that “these people” will always want us dead.
If there’s a hope of breaking this cycle, it includes making the maximum effort to understand how one’s actions will look from the other side of the battlefield. Ramon failed that test, but he has lots of company.