The Blackmailer’s Paradox

With direct negotiations about to begin, Israeli negotiators should enroll in a crash course with the country’s Nobel laureate in economics, Prof. Robert Aumann. Aumann, whose specialty is game theory, offered valuable advice in an interview with Haaretz last month, in which he described a game-theory concept known as “the blackmailer’s paradox.”

“Someone offers Reuven and Shimon NIS 1,000 together, if they can manage to agree on the question of how to split the money between them. Reuven says to Shimon: ‘Great, let’s split it half and half.’ Shimon says: ‘No. I am not leaving here with less than NIS 900. You will get 100. Take it or leave it.’ Reuven says to him: ‘Be rational. What is the difference between us? Why should you get more?’ Shimon says: ‘Rational or not, do what you want. Either I leave here with 900 or with nothing. You decide.’

The problem with Israel’s negotiations with both the Palestinians and Syria, Aumann said, is that the Arabs have successfully played the role of the blackmailer: they have convinced both themselves and Israel that their demands are sacred and must be met fully, whereas “we don’t manage to convince ourselves that anything is sacred.” And because Israel can’t convince itself, “there isn’t anything that we can convince the other side is sacred to us, that we’re willing to ‘be killed for it, rather than transgress.’”

Anyone familiar with the history of Israeli-Palestinian talks knows they have been one long string of unilateral Israeli concessions: in 17 years, Palestinian positions on borders, Jerusalem, and refugees haven’t budged an inch.

But Israel’s behavior has another negative consequence that Aumann didn’t mention: it results in international pressure for concessions being applied almost exclusively to Israel.

After all, the world just wants an agreement; it doesn’t much care what the deal looks like or what its long-term impact on Israel will be. And since the Palestinians have convinced world leaders that their demands are sacred, whereas Israel has convinced them that its demands can always be conceded for the sake of “peace,” these leaders very rationally conclude that an agreement will be obtained more easily by pressuring Israel than by pressuring the Palestinians and that Israel’s “demands” can be safely ignored.

If Israel is ever to change this pattern, its leaders must stop their incessant talk about the “painful concessions” a deal will require of Israel and start talking instead about the “painful concessions” it will require of the Palestinians. Israel must state its own demands loudly, clearly, and continuously, and make it crystal clear that there will be no deal unless they are met.