A year ago, John Kerry was sworn in as U.S. Secretary of State. Kerry decided to focus much of his efforts on reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, which were in a stalemate at the time. Kerry set a goal to reach an “agreed framework” by mid-2014, setting a path to enter the final and more difficult phase of achieving a final comprehensive peace plan. He had to think and be creative: How could he succeed where many others have failed?

Unfortunately, most Middle East commentators are pessimistic about Kerry’s attempts, citing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as weak leaders incapable of achieving peace. In order to achieve peace, Netanyahu would have to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from the West Bank and divide the Old City of Jerusalem between the two nations. Such a decision would risk the stability of his right wing coalition, to the point that he might be overthrown. As a risk-averse, right wing cynical leader, commentators assume that Netanyahu would do anything he possibly can to avoid peace. Abbas, on the other hand, would have to relinquish the Palestinian right of return, as well many lands Palestinians regard as their homeland, in order to achieve peace. Doing so would not only risk his regime but also his life, since many Palestinian factions, such as the terrorist organization Hamas, would view such a move as treason to the Palestinian people. Furthermore, in 2008, Abbas received a peace plan from then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert but never responded. Therefore, it is obvious why peace negotiations have not progressed in past years despite popular support among both Israelis and Palestinians.

Kerry understood that if the U.S. wants to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace, he had to employ a “game-changer.” Kerry decided that the best way to get both leaders back to the negotiation table was by using a game theory model named “chicken.” The game of chicken comes from the dangerous driving game in which two drivers accelerate on a collision course towards one another. Whoever swerves first is the “chicken.” If neither driver swerves, they both die.

Kerry changed the incentives of both players by implying that the U.S. would view more favorably those who made true attempts to achieve peace. Both the Palestinians and Israelis rely heavily on U.S. foreign aid and would do anything they can to appease Kerry. Neither wants to get the blame for circumventing the peace talks. Under Kerry’s game of chicken, each leader would achieve his best outcome if he opts for peace, while the other leader does not. In such a situation, that leader would gain U.S. support without risking the stability of his regime. Nevertheless, if they both opt for peace, they might get their worst outcome possible—peace—which might be fatal for each of their regimes. It is only ironic how the leaders’ worst outcome is the best outcome for their peoples.

Obviously, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are far too complex to fit a simple game of chicken. Kerry needs to remember that the last time both sides met for negotiations, framed as a chicken game, they failed miserably. In 2000, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian President Yasser Arafat at Camp David. The Camp David Summit not only failed to achieve peace, but also spurred the Second Intifada. The chicken game President Clinton created proved to be much more complicated than its theory. Unlike Barak, who was more open to compromise since he needed to achieve peace for his political future, Arafat’s case was exactly the opposite: He could afford to walk away. Arafat understood that, by refusing to compromise for peace, he would gain popular support among Palestinians and Arabs around the world. This popular support was worth more for him than the risk of alienating President Clinton, whose presidency was coming to an end. Clinton later remarked, “I regret that in 2000 [Arafat] missed the opportunity to bring that nation into being and pray for the day when the dreams of the Palestinian people for a state and a better life will be realized in a just and lasting peace.” If Kerry wants to succeed where Clinton failed, he must understand the full complexities of this game. He needs to make sure both leaders are in a position in which they cannot afford to walk away.

Will Kerry’s game work?


As an Israeli, I truly hope so, but I remain very skeptical.

Aviv Canaani is a second-year MBA student at the Fuqua School of Business and formerly a senior advisor to a member of the Israeli parliament.