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Zero-Sum Logic and its Perils

The drive for total victory may not be a winning strategy
Dr. Tal Becker is a Senior Fellow of the Kogod Research Center at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where he leads educational initiatives on Israel and the Jewish world. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the Institute’s iEngage research seminar which produces the premier educational program on Israel engagement in North America, working to strengthen and re-imagine the relationship between Israel and World Jewry. Dr. Becker also serves as the Legal Adviser

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.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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