I have succeeded in making peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In an interview preceding the Annapolis Conference, Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiator Saeb Erakat claimed that peace could be delivered in half an hour. The basis, everyone already knows, is the Clinton draft: two states with border adjustments and division of Jerusalem. In my case, peace took two hours — or, well, two years. I delivered it in 2009. I watched the express train glide through the Safe Passage from Gaza to the West Bank. I brought together Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian farmers; we are planning a tri-state organic cooperative. Jerusalem is the capital for all. Euphoria!
How did I pull this off? As a subscriber to the Israeli daily Haaretz, I received, in advance of Annapolis, a computer game from the workshop of the Peres Peace Center. It begins with a survey of the conflict from 1922 until the end of 2007. I was offered the choice of being either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader. I chose the former. The game set me the goal of lowering the level of violence, providing Israelis with a feeling of security, and improving the economy. In addition, I was supposed to make life easier in the occupied territories and advance toward a peace agreement. I was provided with a range of tools, including the “stick” of selective assassinations, air strikes, curfews, etc. and the “carrot” of opening roadblocks, granting permits to work in Israel, and economic cooperation (as a reward to the PA for combating terrorism). I could also expand or dismantle the settlements and initiate projects to improve the Israeli economy, such as tax breaks or aid to the elderly.
On the international scene, I worked with the US (which always cooperated), the UN (most of whose members were skeptical about my intentions) and the European Union (which was not especially helpful).
The game is complex. If your disapproval rating climbs beyond 70 percent, it’s all over and you go home to feather your nest. It was no coincidence that peacemaking took me two years. It was very hard to supply security to the Israelis and prosperity to the Palestinians while sticking to the rules and conditions, which reflected actual events.
Every time I rewarded the Palestinians, my disapproval rating in Israel soared, but do you think the Palestinians were satisfied? Not at all. They just wanted more. Because of them I almost lost my coalition.
Right at the start, on the day I took office, there was a major suicide bombing: 18 dead and 40 wounded. I turned to the PA president and demanded he take action against the militants (my disapproval rating in Israel jumped to 20 percent). He said I had a lot of nerve to demand such a thing after destroying his security apparatus. I offered to help and build it anew — but got clobbered by him and my own right wing. My Israeli disapproval rating climbed to 30 percent. I added roadblocks and performed a few selective assassinations. Israeli disapproval dropped accordingly to 10 percent, but Palestinian disapproval now rose to 20 percent. In order to stabilize the situation, I gave a speech for peace in English (the pundits were underwhelmed). I turned to the US president for help in restarting negotiations, and I let in 5,000 Palestinian workers. The settlers raised a ruckus, but I managed to calm them. I initiated a tax cut to spur the economy. My approval rating rose by five percentage points on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian.
Then I spent half a year learning how to make a stable government. Conclusion: fight terrorism as if there are no peace negotiations, and negotiate peace as if there is no terrorism!
For two years I went back and forth between selective assassinations and dismantling illegal settler outposts, between getting American aid and stabilizing the PA president by restoring his economy. I handed out a lot of work permits.
By the 18-month mark I was getting approval from more than 50 percent of Israelis and Palestinians. I could afford to absorb a suicide attack here and there, because the economy was stable on both sides of the Green Line and the Palestinians had something to lose. The PA president grew stronger and began to suppress the militants. When at last we ran the train between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas caved in. I understood that we had passed the point of no return. I then started dismantling settlements. The settlers again raised a ruckus, but I clobbered them. A few cabinet ministers jumped ship, but the Zionist Left gave me backing to continue. I added joint patrols in order to raise the feeling of security, and I reached the 80 percent approval mark. I got word that in Nablus people had started to smile. I was euphoric. I agreed to allow 100,000 Palestinian refugees into Israel, and I released prisoners with blood on their hands. To my great surprise, this didn’t seem to bother the Israeli public. I came to the end of the game. I didn’t have to trouble myself about dividing Jerusalem. I received an announcement on the screen that it was already divided, accompanied by a notice thanking me for bringing peace. Now the game suggested that I play the part of the Palestinian leader.
As PA president, I was a disaster. I began without a budget. I spent my time knocking on the doors of the international community and the Arab world, begging for aid that I mostly didn’t get. The worst were the Egyptians. The Americans would not agree to put pressure on Israel, and Israel refused to remove a single roadblock. The Europeans played a double game and their donations turned out to be meager. Not for a moment was I able to satisfy, at one go, both the demands of my people under occupation and those of the international community. It is no wonder, I reflected, that in reality Hamas was able to win a landslide electoral victory.
If the Peacemaker game is a faithful attempt to represent our reality, we’re in no great shape. In order to stay afloat I had to be a hybrid of Ariel Sharon and Yossi Beilin, with a leaning toward a military perspective. Israeli society is basically conservative and remorseless. Despite the fact that I managed to lower the number of terror attacks, I had a hard time persuading the Israeli public to make concessions. In reality, no prime minister would survive the two years it took me. His coalition would have fallen apart, given the security-minded coalition provided by the game. I finished with a lot of blood on my hands.
This attempt to compress reality into a computer game contains tough lessons. During my two years of peacemaking, I never once engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians. All my actions were unilateral. In the view of the Peres Center and the Israeli establishment, there is nothing that the Palestinians can offer toward resolving the conflict, except of course to rein in the militants. Otherwise they only need hold on to what they get: money, cities, prisoners etc. The name of the game is economic prosperity and security on the Israeli side. If the PM can supply these two things, says the game, his public will be open to concessions.
The Annapolis Conference tells a different story. Israel’s economy is thriving, unemployment has declined, and there is military stability. According to the game, we should be forging ahead toward peace. We are not. The Israelis and Palestinians couldn’t even reach a common statement of principles.
As in the game, the real Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, cannot move a finger without permission from abroad. The international community pressures him to combat Hamas and to compromise. Those who manage to finish PeaceMaker discover that the Palestinian state is tied hand and foot to Israel’s economy by free-trade agreements and joint projects. Israel supplies the capital and know-how, Palestinians supply cheap labor.
The game is far from reality. It takes no account of key factors: the Hamas electoral victory and takeover in Gaza; the lack of a viable political force on the Palestinian side; the spread of settlements and illegal outposts; the checkpoints and roadblocks. On the board of reality, very little room remains for a Palestinian state. The game is dwindling to solitaire.
Challenge is a bi-monthly leftist magazine focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within a global context. Published in Jaffa by Arabs and Jews, it features political analysis, investigative reporting, interviews, eye-witness reports, gender studies, arts, and more. This article first appeared in Challenge #106 and is reprinted with permission.