Confirmation Bias

Can the Palestinians Take Yes For An Answer?

Commentary Magazine’s Jonathan Tobin says the last thing Palestinians want is to reach a peace agreement with Israelis. Sigal Samuel investigates the evidence.

The Palestinians say they want to reach a peace agreement with the Israelis, but they’re really just pretending: that’s the thrust of a recent column by Commentary Magazine’s Jonathan Tobin.

Tobin notes that some Palestinians have been complaining to the press that U.S. envoy Martin Indyk and his team have not been involved enough in the renewed peace talks. He quotes PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi’s explanation for these complaints—Palestinians fear the Israelis will exploit their power unless the U.S. gets more involved—only to reject this explanation out of hand. Tobin thinks the real fear animating these complaints is simple: the Palestinians don’t want to be alone with Israeli lead peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, because they’re afraid she’ll actually give them a good deal—a deal that’s beneficial to them and that meets the demands they themselves have articulated. In Tobin’s words, “the last thing they want is to actually reach an agreement they’d have to justify to a Palestinian people that is still not ready to accept a Jewish state no matter [how] its borders are drawn.”

This statement combines the worst kind of cynicism with the worst kind of empty psychologizing. It assumes the Palestinian leadership is only pretending to be interested in a two-state solution. On the basis of what evidence, you might ask? As far as I can tell, Tobin offers two reasons for skepticism. Here’s one: “PA leader Mahmoud Abbas seems no more capable or willing to accept the peace that he rejected in 2008 when he fled negotiations with Ehud Olmert.” And here’s the other: “the continuing stream of invective about Jews and Israel pouring out of the official Palestinian media and the so-called moderates of Fatah makes it hard to believe they are finally ready to take yes for an answer.”The first reason is demonstrably false. The notion that Abbas rejected Olmert’s 2008 peace offer is an old chestnut that is constantly hawked by the right, despite the fact that it’s been debunked over and over again—including in the New York Times Magazine by the likes of Bernard Avishai and, um, Ehud Olmert himself. That Tobin keeps reiterating it anyway suggests a deep confirmation bias.

The second reason admittedly carries more weight. As I noted in these pages last month, official PA television has invited kids to recite anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hate speech several times over the past year. This kind of invective is disturbing to say the least, and it understandably makes it difficult for Israel-supporters to believe in the PA’s commitment to the idea of an enduring state of Israel alongside a new Palestinian state. And yet Tobin paints an incomplete picture: he notes the PA’s failure to completely rid its media of such invective, but neglects to offer praise where praise is due—in regards to Palestinian schoolbooks, say, which a recent study revealed are far shorter on dehumanizing and demonizing portrayals than official Israel would have us believe. Again, there’s a confirmation bias at work here.

And that’s the least of Tobin’s omissions. Far from believing Palestinians when they report on their own subjectivity, he imputes motivations to them that just don’t jibe with, you know, the data. Take, for example, the fact that Abbas has been a vocal proponent of the two-state solution since 1977. If you’re tempted to say that’s true of Abbas but not of the general Palestinian population, consider this helpful breakdown of Palestinian views, assembled by Dr. Khalil Shikaki and Steven M. Cohen and published by the Christian Science Monitor. The scholars note:

Perhaps most encouragingly, most Palestinians support the two-state solution—Israel and its Jewish majority living side-by-side in peace with the yet-to-be founded Palestine. Asked about the two-state solution, 53 percent of Palestinians are in favor and 46 percent opposed.

Under conditions of permanent peace, an overwhelming majority of Palestinians endorses genuine and full reconciliation between the two peoples. Even during the worst days of the second intifada, findings consistently showed about three quarters (73 percent) supporting reconciliation between the two peoples once the conflict ended and a Palestinian state established alongside Israel.

Does Tobin think Abbas has been faking support for two states since 1977—that is to say, for 36 years? If so, that’s quite the long game he’s been playing. If Tobin believes Abbas genuinely supports two states but is afraid of having to justify that arrangement to his Palestinian constituents, the above numbers suggest that task wouldn’t be as impossible as it seems.

At the end of the day, it’s easy for both sides to look askance at each other’s motivations and doubt that they’re really committed to peace. (For Palestinians, nothing would be easier than to point to the Israelis’ decision to announce the construction of several hundred new settlement homes two days before peace talks resumed as evidence that they are negotiating in bad faith.) And, of course, all sides in this conflict suffer from a degree of confirmation bias. Being human, we can’t expect one another to completely obliterate that bias. But we can expect everyone to have the intellectual integrity to at least try to correct for it.

When you go so far as to assume Palestinians are actually invested in not reaching an agreement that would improve their own lives, despite the stated views of their own majority, you’re not just failing to correct for bias. You’re failing to even try.