International Debate

Moving Beyond Deterrence

September 11, 2012 1636

After a half-century of conflict, Israel and Palestine seem no closer to a lasting peace than they were decades ago. In recent years, Israel’s primary response to Palestinian violence has been to retaliate using violent force, with efforts like negotiations, concessions, and inducements taking a back seat to more punishing sanctions. Somewhat predictably, Palestinian militants have responded to such actions with yet more violence against Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach to the conflict presents few fresh ideas about how to resolve it, while the Palestinian Authority is completely out of ideas.

Our recent study points to a way out for both sides, but Israel must take the lead.[1] Instead of punishing terrorists, engaging in provocative actions like settlement expansions and home demolitions, and placing blame for the conflict on Palestinians, our research shows that violence toward Israel will decline if Israel engages in credible, conciliatory actions toward Palestinians.

Such actions cannot be indirect and half-hearted, such as Netanyahu’s 2009 settlement freeze, and they must go beyond prisoner releases and other compromises that benefit only a small number of people. Instead, we are talking about sincere gestures that benefit the Palestinian public in general. Examples of such actions include reversing settlement expansion (rather than just freezing it), improving living conditions in Palestine, admitting where harm has been done, and making sincere attempts toward Palestinian self-determination.

Some argue that such actions will simply embolden extremists and result in yet more violence, proffering Hamas’ wave of terror during the 1990s and the Second Intifada as cautionary tales. But our data tell a different story. Contrary to these fears, we find that from the mid-1990s through 2004, conciliatory measures generally reduced terrorist attacks against Israel. Our findings are the first to clearly demonstrate the violence-reducing effects of conciliatory actions—effects that are, paradoxically, the most pronounced during the Second Intifada.

The results suggest that to resolve the conflict with Palestinians, Israel must use inducements and concessions—unilaterally if necessary—to improve the status quo for the average Palestinian. If our study is correct, such measures will likely reduce violence, while undermining support for Islamist extremists (both inside and outside of Israel), lessening the sense of despair in the Palestinian Territories, and removing a major propaganda tool of many of Israel’s regional foes.

Contrary to skeptical views that concessions are futile or counterproductive, we find that compared with repression, conciliatory measures make Israelis safer.


[1] Our study relies on our GATE-Israel dataset, which identifies actions by Israeli state actors directed toward Palestinians on a full range of punishing and rewarding tactics and policies from 1987-2004.

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