The Zero-Sum Trap

The New York Times recently carried an op-ed by former National Security Council staffer Robert Malley and Oxford don (and Palestinian negotiator) Hussein Agha, entitled "The Two-State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything." This, incidentally, was the same Malley-Agha team did much to confuse the issues around the failure of the 2000 Camp David conference. Their sympathetic portrayal of the dilemmas faced by the Palestinian leadership at Camp David placed them in opposition to the views of President Clinton and Dennis Ross. Ever since, both separately and together, they have outspokenly presented arguments that justify Palestinian stances.
Malley has correctly described as "unfortunate" the misleading title the Times put on the new op-ed, but it is easy to see why a Times editor found the piece confusing, reading it as an attack on the two-state solution. "For years," Malley and Agha write, "virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel."

Confused? In a later interview Malley insisted he and Agha support the two-state solution and were seeking to identify why the negotiating process remains stuck.

Along the way, they offer confirmation that the Palestinians overwhelmingly see the conflict as a moral zero-sum game. Malley and Agha explain: "… to accept Israel as a Jewish state would legitimize the Zionist enterprise that brought about their [the Palestinians'] tragedy. It would render the Palestinian national struggle at best meaningless, at worst criminal."

In other words, the attitudes of the Palestinian people constitute the problem. Since Israel’s cause appears to them utterly unjust, they cannot legitimize to themselves negotiating any concessions.

The authors either do not understand, or for some reason will not express, the importance of the paradigm at work. All of us know from life experience that to make peace, adversaries need to recognize at least some justice on the other side. But in a moral zero-sum paradigm, where this recognition fails—either because the other side is completely malevolent or because one is blinded by pre-conceptions as to the justice on the other side—compromise is seen as intolerable concession to evil.

The intentions of Malley and Agha are hard to gauge. If the goal was tactical, that is to generate sympathy for the current Palestinian perception, they seem to have failed. As the Times editor who made up the title inadvertently showed, their op-ed can be read to exemplify how far the Palestinians are from truly supporting a two-state solution. Moreover, they do not offer a suggestion for altering the zero-sum game paradigm. That is, they never actually say it is possible to recognize some justice on the Israeli side without surrendering the Palestinian claim to justice.

Whether they meant to or not, Malley and Agha succeeded brilliantly in showing why supporters of a just peace will have to address and transform the Palestinian view of Zionism. Acknowledgement of the problem adds urgency to President Obama's call on the Palestinians to desist from incitement and vilification. Others must join the U.S. in this effort.

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