To work, Mideast peace must first address daily concerns

It is tempting to focus on big-ticket questions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the heart of the issue is in the daily 'facts on the ground' that most affect people. Our study found that Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank impede Palestinians – but also Israeli and regional security.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks in Ramallah April 26. Mr. Abbas said any unity government with Hamas would follow his political program, but Israel’s leaders have accused him of choosing Hamas over peace. On Sunday, Abbas called the Holocaust 'the ugliest crime humanity has known in modern history,' marking a rare acknowledgment by an Arab leader of Jewish suffering during the Nazi genocide.

Secretary of State John Kerry's plan – and timeline – for a comprehensive Mideast peace treaty nine months after negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders were reignited was perhaps overly exuberant, but the concept of a grand bargain is a good one. The numerous regional crises – Egypt's fledgling democratization, Syria's civil dissolution, Iran's nuclear program – share links to a common concern: the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. This is true not just politically, but also diplomatically, as it is the crux of US leverage in the other disputes. Without real strides in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, subsequent diplomatic breakthroughs in these other areas are unlikely.

A comprehensive accord is the right goal. But to achieve any solvency, it is imperative to start small. Although it is tempting to focus on big-ticket questions, such as Palestinian sovereignty, claims to Jerusalem, and the "right of return" of displaced Palestinians, in fact the core of the conflict pertains to its lived aspects – the "facts on the ground." For Israelis, this means violence, and the shroud of fear under which citizens live their lives; for Palestinians, this means settlements and checkpoints that have incapacitated Palestinian businesses and divided families.

In short, the most important issues – the structural and emotional core of the conflict – remain neglected. Indeed, on both accounts, conditions have gotten worse.

From 2008 to 2012 we conducted research both in Israel and the West Bank on how the experience at Israeli checkpoints impacts Palestinian attitudes toward violence against Israel, and support for the militant group Hamas. Some repressive institutions have the effect of dampening resistance; others motivate it. We wanted to understand the effect of checkpoints within the West Bank, i.e., whether they prompted Palestinians to want to stop fighting (and return to the negotiating table), or fight harder.

Our study, forthcoming in the American Journal of Political Science, reveals that checkpoints perpetuate violence, exacerbating the very problem they were designed to solve. This finding is remarkable, as checkpoints are nonviolent in nature. A "checkpoint" is defined by the United Nations as any staffed physical impediment to travel within a territory. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, checkpoints are designed to regulate Palestinian movement within the West Bank – protecting and allowing for Israeli settlements. (They are different from "crossings" – gates in the security barrier – that separate the Palestinian territories from Israel.)

A natural experiment

Our research – the first of its kind – draws upon a policy intervention prompted by special negotiator Tony Blair, which facilitated the removal of certain critical checkpoints as a means of opening up arteries for Palestinian business along the Jenin-Hebron Corridor. This created the conditions for a natural experiment.

We conducted surveys before and after the intervention took place, speaking to 504 residents equally divided between two groups in similar villages. These sites were identical except in one regard: One was in close proximity to a checkpoint slated for removal (the treatment group); the other was in close proximity to a checkpoint to remain in place (the control group).

Participants in both groups were asked identical questions relating to their political party support, beliefs about the two-state solution, and attitudes toward violence against Israel.

This empirical strategy enabled us to identify a "checkpoint effect," i.e., to understand the effect that the experience of checkpoints had on Palestinian attitudes over and above alternative explanations.

The 'checkpoint effect'

Our research suggests that exposure to checkpoints increases support for violence. Palestinians subject to checkpoint easement became significantly less likely to support violence against Israel. At the same time, areas more densely filled with checkpoints became increasingly radical. The driving force behind these attitudes was feelings of humiliation.

These findings have clear policy ramifications. There is little question that checkpoints are an impediment in the lives of Palestinians, but it is noteworthy that they are a detriment to Israeli and regional security as well.

At best, the Israeli state is trading off long-term risk for short-term safety – a Faustian bargain. At worst, Israel is creating the conditions and voices for a third intifada – a conflagration that is in nobody's interest.

Although the clock has likely run out on Secretary Kerry's current plan, this is not the final chapter. The Middle East doesn't work that way. In fact, this set of efforts and talks is likely the first salvo in a sequence of negotiations for peace talks that will endure through Kerry's remaining years in office.

Improving Israeli security

It is imperative, then, to start taking on the real issues that beset negotiations. This means, among other things, dismantling the checkpoint regime in the West Bank. Unless the small, palpable issues that impact people's lives are addressed, it is hard to see any future negotiations succeeding.

This will not be easy. Checkpoints are considered by many to be an essential aspect of Israeli security. However, as the Blair initiative revealed, removing checkpoints produced no increase in violence against Israel. Indeed, checkpoints within the West Bank are designed primarily to protect Israeli settlers in the West Bank; they do little to protect Israel proper.

Still, popular perceptions are hard to shake. This is why diplomacy is critical now more than ever. Our research suggests that Israeli mechanisms of control perpetuate the very violence they seek to contain. This is a bargain no one can afford.

Matthew Longo is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University. Daphna Canetti is an associate professor of political psychology at the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa in Haifa, Israel. Nancy Hite-Rubin is an assistant professor of political economy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

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