In the conflicts within Israeli society, and between Israel and its neighbors, competing forces are regularly tempted by the lure and the language of total victory. In battles between right and left, between ultra-Orthodox and secular, between Israelis and Palestinians, each side is quick to cast the contest in terms of good and evil, to both simplify and exaggerate its nature. Before we know it, we have convinced ourselves that the opposing force is malevolent to the core, and our triumph over it an existential imperative. Though we may somehow sense that the causes and remedies for these clashes are complex and, at some level, unknowable, we covet a simpler story of victim and villain, of right and wrong.
For a country that has known only conflict since its founding, and for a people whose history has taught them that evil exists, the attraction of this zero-sum logic is strong. Our experience has steeled us for battle, and we can be easily convinced that the empowerment of our adversary comes, of necessity, at our peril. In this environment, our leaders - like politicians the world over - know that the call to arms against an enemy is a more effective rallying cry than the appeal to nuance and humbler mutual understanding.
The headlines in Israeli newspapers about the struggles between competing groups alternate at a dizzying pace. Today’s headlines have some Israelis warning of the demise of Israel as a democratic society in the face of morally repugnant discrimination against women, while ultra-Orthodox groups vow to resist “secular oppression” at all costs. On other days we may read of a clash over efforts to alter the composition of the Supreme Court, or evacuate an outpost, or limit funding to Israeli NGO’s. At some level, though, the headline is the same. One group in society tries to use the power at its disposal to dictate its will at the expense of other groups that do not share its agenda. Battle lines are drawn, demonization ensues, and backlash becomes inevitable. And in the process, the glue that holds people together - which makes them see what unites them more than what divides them - gives way to a tribal power struggle, to an “us and them” mentality, rather than to a search for common good.
The problem with this zero-sum approach to Israel’s challenges is not just that it polarizes groups and intensifies conflict. Even for those committed to a particular political position, the drive for total victory may not be a winning strategy. When our adversaries are a permanent feature of the landscape, our success lies more in creating a reality in which they too have a stake, than in trying to dictate one which they feel compelled to overturn. In chronic conflict, you are unlikely to lay lasting claim to victory, without allowing your opponent some measure of the same honor. And even the appearance of “victory” in these cases is usually misleading and temporary, as the defeated side - bitter and hardened - bides its time and prepares for retaliation.
In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, for example, after all the debris of blame and competing narratives are swept aside, we are left with two peoples, each with rights and responsibilities that are, for better or worse, stuck with each other. Neither can fairly realize its aspirations without somehow accommodating the aspirations of the other. There is just no path to the lasting and secure expression of one people’s self-determination rights without some measure of respect for the responsible and meaningful expression of other’s rights as well. In this sense, Palestinian statehood (realistically and responsibly realized) is an Israeli interest, not an Israeli concession. Israeli security is a Palestinian interest, not a Palestinian compromise. But when one side seeks victory at the other’s expense both, in the end, lose.
The same dynamic applies internally within Israeli society. While there may be shifts in the political power of the core competing groups within Israel, none are going to disappear. Ultra-Orthodox, secular, right-wing, left-wing, urban-center and periphery, are here to stay. Each group can take turns making life more miserable for the other groups, but they cannot fashion a reality solely according to their will without antagonizing, and attracting retaliation from, their opponents. The disengagement from Gaza, for example, was initially seen as a blow to the settler movement and a victory for those pursuing territorial compromise. But because of the way it was handled, because of the zero-sum atmosphere that accompanied it, the results of the disengagement have arguably also been to empower and radicalize key elements in the settler leadership.
When we understand the dynamic between competing forces in this way, the legitimate realization of the interests of the other side ceases to be something we seek to defeat, if possible, and tolerate, if necessary. The other side’s interests become our interests as well, if for no other reason than that our own lasting success is, in some part, dependent on theirs. The challenge is to transcend the impulse to zero-sum logic when conflict emerges, to be smarter than it, to search for creative solutions and to empower those on the other side willing to show the same sensibility. The challenge is to encourage a political culture that becomes defined less by the need to win battles than by the obligation to reconcile interests. And, ultimately, to see in our common humanity and collective identity values no less deserving of our commitment than our disparate causes and individual convictions.
For a rational solution both sides should be rational so in an ideal rational world there is no place for conflicts.
The arab "rational"is motivated for the negation of Israel and Jews in the area even since the creation of Israel . So there is no zero sum equation to resolve the problem.
Shmuel, L, 15/01/2012 18:58:00
Bilateralism and the red lines
It of course is not possible to disagree. Zero Sum situations first of all presuppose discrete conditions hardly occurring in the real world- and are simply instrumental fiction. Resorting to that simplification it nevertheless is important to acknowledge that eschewing one zero sum we may unintentionally engage in creating an other which constitutes an even more tragically inferior optimum. Tolerating/forgiving events like the murder of two drivers gone astray at Tul Karem during the 2000 intifadeh-- is a case in point. As the article itself points out every bilateral discourse must be embedded and consistent with a Pan Human conception of a priori equal rights to life, happiness achievement- when this common denominator is absent compromises serve only to legitimize the "tribal victory" of the Yetzer Ha Ra.
Sylvia Sztern-SempreLovingM.G., Sweden, 08/01/2012 20:44:00
there`s nothing in this is article that isn`t known or obvious to everyone. the only way to harness game theory is to tackle complexity (which is a system property).
mr. becker try this one: israeli society is more complex than arab society. what does it mean in terms of feasibilities for either one?
michael, switzerland, 08/01/2012 16:33:00
Hard conflicts, hard choices.
It`s hard to know just where to stop, where to find that ideal place somewhere between victory and defeat.
It`s hard for the obvious reason that no easy way exists to carry to the process. At least, not yet.
It`s hard because people are scared to make any moves that they might later have cause to regret.
It`s hard to know what the other person is thinking unless a common bond can carry their thoughts, until a framework for settled discussion and development is available to both sides.
It`s hard because too many fears crowd out the natural instinct in Man to reach out to his fellowman when the occasion demands.
It`s hard when the memories of past encounters demonstrate the failures of techniques that should have worked and the frail construction of so many bridges that were expected to last much longer than they did.
It`s hard because not one of us has taken the time to make it easy.
It`s hard because, maybe, that`s the way it should be.
And it will remain that way unless and until we all decide to make it otherwise.
John Yorke, UK, 07/01/2012 20:55:00
the lessons to learn
boy, the souls incarnated in israel at this time seem to have needed a crash course in learning that beliefs create reality, and the huge destructiveness of ego.
no better school for this on earth at the current time.
gregory lent, china, 07/01/2012 17:57:00
Zero Sum Games
Yes, I agree, but what are the opportunities without realistic negotiations?
Len, Netherlands/UK, 06/01/2012 16:25:00
Mr. Becker`s article is a call for a rational Israeli policy that may be a turning point that leads to a Palistinian-Israel Peace, and hopefully, a Bi-National State with both peoples sharing a Democratic Secular reality.
Jack Disraeli, USA, 06/01/2012 09:32:00
This article is correct in theory, but not in reality. The reality is that the Palestinians have proven over and over for over 60 years that they are not interested in compromise, but only in the destruction of the Jewish State. They announce this every day. One thing that should be obvious to everyone, even the author, is that you cannot compromise with suicide bombers, or with a society that glorifies suicide bombers and turns them into folk heroes. You cannot compromise with a society that "loves death" as the Palestinians tell us that they do every day. We would like to believe that everyone is rational and has the ability to compromise the "accomodate the legitimate aspirations of the other" as the author describes it. Unfortunately, that is just not the case with the Palestinians. They have proven over and over again that they would rather live in misery and live in peace, and they would rather blame the Jews for their dsyfunction than teach their children the value of compromise. This is the obvious truth. You cannot deal with suicide bombers and a culture that loves death. You cannot compromise with them. You cannot appease them. They are determined to die. Tragically all a rational society can is make sure they die at a time and place of your choosing rather than their choosing. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Palestinians, it is a zero sum game. It is hard for a democracy to accept that, but it is the truth. The Palestinians would rather die than live in peace with Israel. How many suicide bombers will it take before we have to admit to ourselves that THESE PEOPLE ARE JUST NOT LIKE US. THEY ARE NOT NORMAL. YOU CANNOT DEAL WITH THEM LIKE NORMAL, RATIONAL PEOPLE, BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT.
mike, USA, 06/01/2012 01:31:00
A reversal of fate - and then some.
An excellent article but there is no mention of the procedure to be used.
`The challenge is to encourage a political culture that becomes defined less by the need to win battles than by the obligation to reconcile interests. And, ultimately, to see in our common humanity and collective identity values no less deserving of our commitment than our disparate causes and individual convictions. `
As an intellectual exercise, this analysis certainly covers a good many bases but, in practical terms, I just can`t see it being implemented, no matter how desirable such a thing might be. The reason? Israeli and Palestinian societies haven`t the philosophical depth and political stamina to allow for this type of consideration, not even in its most abstract form. I hasten to add that this is true of societies in general and those in the Middle East, almost by default, are governed by very much the same parameters.
Could it ever be possible to translate so esoteric a concept into reality; for ALL parties to endorse a scenario where one side`s primary interests are made manifest, even to the marked detriment of the other? And vice-versa?
How long would this conflict be able to continue, at least in its customary form, if so complete a role-reversal were to be demanded from each of the main players?
You could probably count the days and not miss by more than a week.
John Yorke, UK, 05/01/2012 23:37:00