Thursday, March 31, 2011

Israel, the Palestinian Authority--and applied Mathematics

Before the end of the second week of October, 2010, after seeing that Israel had not agreed to a continuation of the building freeze that had ended less than two weeks earlier, the PA announced that, if US President Obama did not bring Israel back to the negotiating table with a new freeze, then they—the PA—would go to the UN to seek statehood.  The PA gave Mr Obama thirty days to bring Israel to heel. This announcement seemed to catch many in Israel by surprise.  Unilateral statehood?   Absurd. Then the French Foreign Minister told reporters that he felt there was support for such a resolution, ‘right now in the UN.’
It would appear that the entire world was caught off-guard by this sudden—perhaps brilliant—announcement.
  Since then, the PA appears to have expanded this theme, alternating between a threat to declare  statehood on its own—seemingly independent of the UN—while at the same time continuing to pressure Israel by lining up UN members from South American(and now other) nations who signal that they are willing  to recognize ‘Palestine’ as a new sovereign state, as they simultaneously demand that the UN accept them as a member state. Then, in February 2011, the Palestinians forced a US veto in the UN Security Council over a Resolution to declare the West Bank ‘settlements’ illegal.   Rumors have circulated that US President Obama promised Mr Abbas increased pressure on Israel if Mr Abbas took the Resolution off the table; Mr Abbas, now seeing more clearly than ever before that the US is willing to act against Israel, made another bold—if not brilliant—move by refusing,  thereby  rebuking the US because their offer wasn’t good enough: next time—and you can be sure there will be a ‘next time’—the US will have to up the ante against Israel if it wants Mr Abbas’ cooperation. Seemingly, with this one refusal, Mr Abbas humiliated the United States, got the US to show its cards, gave up nothing, frightened the US into publically castrating its own veto (with its post-veto speech), and went home from New York not only with Britain, Russia and China in his pocket, but also with the image of the United States embarrassing itself before the UN.
For Mr. Abbas, this had to be better than winning at the local Lotto kiosk.
In the meantime, as the PA pushes forward, sometimes weekly, with the effort for both  ‘statehood’ and increased anti-Israel pressure, there has been a virtual blackout from Israel. There seems to be no spirited debate about what actions or counter-moves Israel could take to meet or blunt this diplomatic challenge, and almost no push-back. There appears to be nothing but silence. Our Talmud teaches us that silence is the same as acquiescence. Has Israel decided that it passively accepts what is being thrown at it?
  Today, the Palestinians appear to be the sole player on this diplomatic playing field. In this two-dog fight, they are the only dog that is willing to fight. They do not simply dominate the discussion; they own the discussion.
Has anyone ever won anything when they cede the entire playing field to their opponent?
Do you know what happens in a two-dog fight when only one dog fights? If you cannot stand the sight of blood, don’t ask this question.
While there are never guarantees when it comes to Arab-Israel talks, and while no one dares predict anything for the Middle East, the question of unilateral action by the PA—with or without UN  assistance-- should be taken seriously by the Netanyahu government. Why? Because of something we learn from applied mathematics—game theory.
Game theory is a field of applied mathematics that, in part, studies strategic situations where there is an opponent, where each side chooses various actions in an attempt to maximize its returns.  In non-math language, simplifying, one side’s success depends upon the choices made by the other side. I repeat: one side’s success depends upon the other side’s choices. This is exactly what we see today in the Arab-Israel conflict: the existence of game theory suggests  that the PA’s successes so far have come precisely because of Israel’s own decisions—not those of UN or the US. Game theory teaches us that our future indeed will not be determined by others, but by us—by both our own decisions and actions, and, most important, by our non-decisions and our non-actions. Our future, in other words, is in our hands—and if we do not act, we do not win because the other side is working so hard to maximize its own returns.
Furthermore, I would suggest that game theory tells us we are already losing. Personally, I believe that a two-state solution will be a disaster for both parties (and especially disastrous for the Palestinians), but even if you believe in two states, we are still losing because we are looking at having that two-state structure rammed down our throats by Mr. Abbas.
I am not a mathematician, but right now, if I had to bet on Israel or game theory, I would not bet on Israel.
The irony is, it doesn’t have to be this way—we have options, and there are actions we can take to maximize our return—just as game theory suggests. The tragedy is, if we do not act soon, it might be too late.

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