Deploying political science to the Middle East

Your humble blogger has been pretty quiet about this week's Israeli/Hamas conflict.  That's for a bunch of reasons:

1)  I've had a few day job papers to bang out;

2)  Foreign Policy has not suffered a deficit of content on this topic;

3)  My bar to blogging about Israel and Palestine is whether I can offer anything more insightful than The Onion.  It's a disturbingly high bar.

That said, I do think there are a few interesting political science questions that are worth asking after the past week.  After all, we've just had an election in this country where it turns out that political science explained an awful goddamned lot.  I wonder if some of that knowledge is being imbibed -- in uneven amounts -- in the Middle East.

In particular, I have three questions: 

1)  Has Bibi Netanyahu been reading Romer and Rosenthal?  One of the landmark articles in political science is Thomas Romer and Howard Rosenthal's paper on the effect of the status quo on political positioning.  One of the key takeaways is that in a two candidate race, if Candidate A takes an extreme position on the central policy issue, it allows Candidate B to adopt a policy position that is further away from the median voter and still win. 

After reading Ethan Bronner's story in the New York Times on how the Gaza conflict is radicalizing the West Bank away from Fatah and towards Hamas (see also Haaretz), I wonder if Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu has figured out the following political jujitsu:

STEP 1:  Take actions that radicalize the Palestinian population -- particularly in the West Bank;

STEP 2:  Have Fatah look less and less like a credible negotiating partner, have the world acknowledge that Hamas now represents the median Palestinian preference on peace talks;

STEP 3:  Have Likus win Israeli election without changing its policy position, which suddenly doesn't look so bad to Israeli voters. 

Actually, I'd posit that there's an element of this in the Israeli's right's strategy of the past decade, but it seems to be particularly blatant this time around. 

2)  Has Hamas been reading Stephen Walt?  And if so, which Stephen Walt?  No, I don't mean that Stephen Walt.  I mean the author of The Origins of Alliances and Revolution and War.  I bring this up cause those books would offer contrasting takes on what Hamas would expect the rest of the Middle East to do.  It seems pretty clear from the press reportage that Hamas believed that This Time Was Different:  the Arab Spring had eliminated authoritarian despots who had used the Palestinian issue as a useful vent for domestic unrest.  Newly democratic regimes would -- according to Walt's Revolution and War -- be more likely to identify with Hamas' cause, thereby taking more aggressive action to undermine and isolate Israel.  And, indeed, at the rhetorical and symbolic level, this has happened.  Libya is sending a "solidarity delegation" to Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has labeled Israel a "terrorist state," and Egypt's Morsi governmment has been pretty plain in blaming Israel for the latest hostilities.   

The thing is, my bet would be on Walt's Origins of Alliances playing the larger role here.  What's interesting about Arab government's reactions to this Operation Pillar of Defense is that they seem.... an awful lot like how Mubarak et al would have reacted.  It would seem that once Islamic movements are charged with running a government, they suddenly start to care about things other than the occupied territories (this appears to be Dennis Ross' take as well, by the way).  For example, I'd argue that these negotiations matter far more to the Morsi government than brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. 

3)  Does the Israeli right really want to make U.S. Middle East policy a partisan footballCNN polled Americans on the conflict in Gaza, and just like every other poll on this question, Americans backed Israel pretty strongly.  57% of American sympathize with the Israelis; only 13% side with the Palestinians.  But as The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper notes, there's a catch: 

CNN's poll director, Keating Holland, finds that there is a great discrepancy in which Americans think the action is justified, however. Of particular note is that only about 40 percent of Democrats believe the self-defense measures are "justified."

"Although most Americans think the Israeli actions are justified, there are key segments of the public who don't necessarily feel that way," Holland tells CNN. "Only four in ten Democrats think the Israeli actions in Gaza are justified, compared to 74% of Republicans and 59% of independents. Support for Israel's military action is 13 points higher among men than among women, and 15 points higher among older Americans than among younger Americans."

Now, you can speculate all you want about the source of this partisan divergence --  *COUGH* Netanyahu gambled on Obama being a one-termer and lost *COUGH* -- but friends of Israel should be disturbed by this growing split.  If Israel becomes a partisan issue, it's not really going to help Republicans all that much, because all it will do is mobilize the evangelical vote -- which they've already pocketed.  And eventually, Israel will have to face a Democratic president with a base that no longer cares about Israel's security.  That's not going to be a good day for Israel. 

[Yeah, we still liked the Onion story better--ed.  Yeah, me too.]


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