Why, despite the backing of the American superpower, has the Middle East peace process failed again and again? I was in Jerusalem last week when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led Washington’s peace parade through town, and there was so little fanfare that I was almost forced to conclude that Time Magazine was right: Perhaps given the current dynamism of Israel’s one-time quasi-socialist economy, Israelis are now too busy making money and going to the beach to participate in the secular passion play of the peace process.
But it is also true that the excitement of the Oslo peace agreements culminated in the second intifada, and the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza brought thousands of Hamas missiles directed at southern Israel. Maybe then the problem is not that Israelis don’t want peace, but that the context into which they have been forced is fatally flawed. So, why do Western diplomats and policymakers keep pursuing the same formulas even though the evidence of failure is plain?
For answers I went to visit Robert Aumann, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for economics whose work in game theory, or interactive decision theory, is a formal analysis of repeated games. “Repeated games model long-term interaction and account for phenomena such as altruism, cooperation, trust, loyalty, revenge,” Aumann said in his Nobel lecture, “War and Peace.” If anyone could explain the repeated failure of the Middle East peace process, I thought, it is a Nobel laureate who actually lives in the region and who has experienced the results of diplomatic failure in his daily life.
“I want peace,” Aumann told me in his office at the Center for the Study of Rationality at Hebrew University, where he has taught since 1956, after obtaining his doctorate from MIT. “I am not a proponent of greater Israel. I’m for the two-state solution, or something like that. But what we are doing does not promote that.”
“I want peace,” he said, pausing for effect, “not peace now.”
The 79-year-old German-born Israeli still speaks English with a New York accent—he graduated from City College in 1950—and it is a little strange to hear him ask his assistant for help translating Hebrew words into English every now and again. This is a small office for a Nobel laureate, but it befits the modesty of a man who lost a son in one of Israel’s wars and a wife to cancer.
Aumann stood and walked me over to his chalkboard, where he showed me a quote from a fellow Nobel winner’s acceptance speech in Stockholm: “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it.” “That’s Barack Obama,” Aumann said, nodding appreciatively. “Smart kid.” Aumann then commented on the talk about Obama being unfriendly to Israel, calling the idea only marginally true. “There’s always a lot of pressure on us coming from Washington, for the last 50 years,” he said.
Aumann, who wears a long white beard and a kippa, is an observant Jew whose skepticism regarding the peace process has put him on the right side of Israel’s political spectrum and made him controversial in academic circles—for using his scientific research to support his politics. Of course, the other way to see it is that Aumann’s politics are shaped by the facts his research makes plain.
Aumann’s analysis of repeated games explains how cultures build systems that allow them to function reasonably smoothly. The problem is when one player does not understand the sort of game being played. For instance, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli peace process, Aumann believes that the problem isn’t that the Israelis and Arabs don’t want peace, but rather that the Israelis and their U.S. patron believe they are playing a one-time game whereas the Arabs see themselves as playing a repeated game. Jerusalem and Washington are in a hurry to conclude negotiations immediately, whereas the Arabs are willing to wait it out and keep playing the same game. The result is that Israel’s concessions, or the desire to have peace now, have brought no peace.
What Aumann is getting at is what he called in his Nobel lecture “one of those paradoxical upside-down insights of game theory.” Of course, poker players are familiar with the principle: Don’t show your hand with chips still on the table. “For repetition to engender co-operation, the players must not be too eager for immediate results,” Aumann said in his lecture. “The present, the now, must not be important. If you want peace now, you may well never get peace. But if you have time—if you can wait—that changes the whole picture; then you may get peace now.”
In Aumann’s view, the post-Oslo period shows that Israel’s behavior leaves it at a serious disadvantage in a repeated game. “In games that repeat over time,” Aumann wrote in an article called “The Blackmailers’ Paradox,” “a strategic balance that is neutral paradoxically causes a cooperation between the opposing sides.” Aumann offered the example of two men forced to split $100,000. Person A assumes that they will split it evenly and is astonished when Person B explains that he will not accept anything less than $90,000. Afraid that he will leave empty-handed, A relents and takes one-tenth of the money. In this situation, A acted as if this were a one-time game, but had he understood it as a repeated game and refused the split so that both he and B walked away empty-handed, he would have shown for future reference that he was every bit as determined as B. This in turn would make B more willing to compromise. “Likewise,” Aumann wrote, “Israel must act with patience and with long-term vision, even at the cost of not coming to any present agreement and continuing the state of belligerence, in order to improve its position in future negotiations.”
Game theory, Aumman explained to me, “has to be borne out by history and historical evidence.” One might add that it is also borne out by other human experiences, like commerce. In the Middle Eastern souk, as the Arab novelist Abdul Rahman Munif once observed, showing your interest in an item immediately triples the merchant’s price. And yet, as Aumann explained to me, “Middle Easterners are no different than anyone else in the world. Game theory is based on the idea that people react to their incentives, and you should be aware that the other party reacts to its own incentives. The other side does not always agree with you or share the same goals.”
To take another example, consider World War II. Aumann remembered his family fleeing Frankfurt in 1938 when his father understood what was on the horizon. “It was Chamberlain who brought war, not Hitler,” Aumann said. If both Chamberlain and Hitler wanted peace, the difference was that Hitler’s vision of Germany at peace included it possessing large chunks of Central Europe. “Hitler was furious when the British declared war,” Aumann said. “And he was right to be. Chamberlain had sent the wrong message.” If Chamberlain had wanted peace he would not have indicated with the Munich Agreement that Hitler was free to have the rest of Czechoslovakia as well as the Sudetenland. That the British eventually drew the line with the invasion of Poland and decided to make war went against the rules of the game as Hitler and Chamberlain had played it up to then. For another example in the Israeli context, Aumann told me to consider the Second Lebanon war. “Nasrallah said, had he known how the Israelis were going to react, he never would’ve started it,” Aumann said. In Nasrallah’s eyes, the withdrawal from Gaza had given him free rein to act with impunity, and it was Israel that had stepped outside of the rules of the game.
“The way to make peace is to make your intentions clear,” Aumann told me. But Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza brought not only the second Lebanon war but also the bombardment of southern Israel and most recently the Mavi Marmara incident. To explain what was wrong with the Gaza withdrawal, Aumann drew on an unusual source for a scientist, the Bible, quoting Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
God’s people, according to Aumann’s interpretation of the passage, have done two stupid things—not only did they abandon God but they also worshipped broken idols. “It’s one thing to do something unconscionably bad,” Aumann said. For him, an expulsion that uprooted thousands of people who have yet to get their lives back in order was “unquestionably immoral.” “If it brings the peace,” Aumann said, “if the ends justify the means, that’s one thing, but this doesn’t even achieve the means. It was morally wrong and strategically stupid. The expulsion from Gaza is unprecedented. Jews have been expelled throughout history, but we own the dubious distinction of being the first people to have expelled ourselves. Never before had this happened, and it led to disaster. Our standing in the world was not improved. We didn’t get sympathy. We get sympathy when we act decisively—after Entebbe, Osirak, a lot of sympathy came after the Six Day war.”
When policymakers and analysts use the same sort of examples to draw the same historical conclusions, they’re dismissed as right-wing ideologues, and Aumann has endured the same treatment. The Nobel committee nonetheless realized he’d hit on a truth that explains a fundamental aspect of who we are as political beings—or who we are when we are most human, sitting across the table from our neighbors trying to figure out how to live together. The paradox is that there can be no co-existence if one person isn’t willing to negotiate as hard as the other. The appeaser will always be swallowed up and simply cease to exist. It is stubbornness rather than the willingness to make immediate concessions that brings about successful negotiations. In other words, if you want peace, prepare for war.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).