The Common Good

When is an Incentive a Bribe? Israel, Settlements, and Fighter Jets

Imagine a parent with two recalcitrant teenagers.

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Parent: "We've got one spare car that we'd like the two of you to share."
Teen #1: "But I want it 75 percent of the time because I'm older."
Parent: "No. The car belongs to the family, and we bought it so you and your sister could share it."
Teen #1: "I refuse the plan. And I demand that I have more of the car."
Parent: "OK, OK. Let me give you an incentive. If I give you $500 will you please go along with the 50/50 plan and share the car?"
Teen #1: "Well, I will for now. But this arrangement is only good for 90 days. Then I'm going to return to my position. And besides, I think I'd like $750."
Parent: "That's fine then. And thank you, really thank you, for being so agreeable. Here's the $750. Now be nice to your sister."

Parents who handle family negotiations like this are headed for disaster. Which is why no one would do it. It results in entitlement among the kids and worse, it undercuts the basis of morality, and erodes your second child's trust in you as a fair negotiator.

This month negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed. But the reason for the collapse wasn't something you'd expect. Palestinian negotiators simply demanded that the illegal settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem halt. Why? This is precisely the territory that in a two-state solution will go into building the new Palestinian state.

It reminds me of the old analogy for this conflict: Two boys sitting opposite the same pizza negotiating who will get more. And yet all along one boy is eating the pizza, while they talk. Quite simply, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eating the pizza, while Mahmoud Abbas looks on. Abbas' complaints have actually been criticized as ridiculous "pre-conditions" for peace negotiations (Jerusalem Post, Nov. 26, 2010). We could imagine Netanyahu saying, "You mean (chomp, chomp) I can't eat the pizza as we negotiate it? What's wrong with you?"

The intervening parent is (as always) the United States. Hillary Clinton's proposal was to call for a building moratorium that would last only 90 days. Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian leader, described the proposal as nonsense. Why should Israel receive incentives for stopping violations of international law? And why is the freeze only for 90 days if everyone agrees that settlements are a violation of international law and are the main obstacle to peace?" he asked.

Israeli conservatives objected loudly, particularly the settlers who are doing the settling. Israeli liberals such as Peace Now objected too, wondering why Israel is indulged when it is involved in illegal activity.

But the U.S. has another plan. Perhaps Israel could be given "incentives." CNN reported (through an anonymous Israeli source) that America offered to shield Israel from international criticism (read: the United Nations) and provide Israel with 20 advanced fighter jets. Yes, you read that right. In order to get Israeli to stop eating the pizza, we have to give them 20 jets.

We wouldn't be wrong to wonder why a recalcitrant negotiating partner needs "incentives" to do the right thing.

portrait-gary-burgeGary M. Burge, Ph.D., is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. He is the author of numerous books both on the Middle East (Jesus and the Land, Whose Land? Whose Promise) and the New Testament (Jesus the Middle Eastern Story Teller, The New Testament in Antiquity, and Encounters with Jesus).

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