Simple vs. Complex Learning Revisited: Israeli Prime Ministers and the Question of a Palestinian State


  • Author's Note: The author thanks Aaron Boesenecker, Mohammed M. Hafez, Jeffrey W. Knopf, Shoon Murray, Jonathan Pearl, and Shibley Telhami for their helpful suggestions. The author is also grateful to the editors and anonymous reviewers at Foreign Policy Analysis for their constructive comments. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2010 annual meeting of the International Studies Association in New Orleans, Louisiana, and a co-written paper with Brent E. Sasley at the 2010 annual meeting of the Association for Israel Studies in Toronto, Ontario.


When does a decision-maker's shift on a major policy issue represent a genuine reassessment in his or her beliefs as opposed to tactical maneuvering? This article provides a framework to improve our confidence that a policy shift represents “complex learning,” which entails the adoption of new goals, rather than “simple learning,” which refers to a change in means but not goals. Challenging the conventional wisdom on learning, it argues that decision makers who alter their foreign policies incrementally are more likely to have had a fundamental rethinking of their underlying assumptions on a core issue than those who exhibit sudden shifts in their foreign policy decisions absent a traumatic event. The public declarations of Israel's three most recent premiers—Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Benjamin Netanyahu—in support of the establishment of a Palestinian state are used to illustrate the utility of this framework. Whereas Sharon and Olmert underwent complex learning, Netanyahu's swift change appears to represent merely a tactical response to pressure from the United States.