Israel and the Blackmailer Paradox
Published in: Jewish Chronicle
Among those bewildered and horrified by the fact that Israel has been turned into a pariah state, it is common to hear complaints about the uselessness of Israeli PR. But this is to miss the point by a mile.
Yes, there are many examples of amateurishness or inexplicable silence on the part of Israel's hasbarah effort, although it is getting better.
But the real problem is far deeper. It rests not on the presentation of Israel's case. It is rooted instead in Israel's whole strategy for dealing with the pressures upon it, and the way in which it has conceptualised the existential threat it faces from Arab rejectionism. The flawed way it thinks about its own situation has locked it into a vice from which it cannot escape.
The problem has been elegantly summed up by Robert Aumann, an Israeli-American who was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005 for his work on conflict and co-operation through Game Theory analysis.
In an article on aish.com, he suggests that Israel has fallen into the trap of the Blackmailer Paradox. Rational Israel is being forced to act irrationally, essentially through a chronic lack of confidence in its own position when faced with an implacable opponent.
He uses the analogy of Shimon and Reuben representing the Palestinians and the Israelis who are dividing up a suitcase of money between them. Shimon declares unreasonably he will grab nine-tenths of the money. But, because he says take it or leave it, Reuben is forced to agree to this injustice just to avoid ending up with no money at all.
The present Israeli approach is based on precisely this Blackmailer Paradox. Israel believes that some kind of agreement with the Arabs must be reached at all costs because the present situation is intolerable.
But, at every negotiation, the Arabs take positions that are as unbending as they are unreasonable. So Israel is forced to yield to this blackmail because it fears that otherwise that it will leave the negotiating table with nothing.
The solution, says Aumann, is for Israel to employ correctly the principles of Game Theory. This means first accepting that in the immediate future it may well leave the negotiating table with nothing and that this is better than accepting an erosion of its security.
Second, it should realise that repeating a game many times changes the calculation made by each player. Israel's refusal to compromise would thus alter the balance of power because the Arabs would realise that they might end up with nothing unless they compromise.
Third, what is absolutely crucial is the player's unshakeable stance. This not only strengthens him in his conviction that he is right but, more crucially still, it even manages to convince his opponent, too. It thus totally undermines that opponent, forcing him to act irrationally against his own interests in order to reach a compromise.
This is exactly what has happened to Israel. Faced with unjust Arab intransigence, it has been bamboozled over the years into making one compromise after another.
The tragic result is not only that the peace it so desperately seeks becomes ever more elusive. Israel also finds itself damned around the world for resisting an unjust Arab cause because, by failing to undermine the implacable Arab stance, it allows that cause to appear justified.
As Aumann observes, the situation will be resolved only if we convince ourselves of the justice of our views.
Israel should refuse to negotiate against its own interests, which tacitly acknowledges that the Arabs have a case. Instead, it should make the argument from justice and articulate the full extent of the great wrong inflicted by its global tormentors.
Israel needs to reconceptualise the rules of the game it is playing. But, in order to convince the rest of the world, it must first convince itself.