On February 20, 2018, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley addressed the UN Security Council about the situation in the Middle East. Her remarks showed negotiating skills that were woefully absent during the eight years of ineptitude under the Obama administration. It was as stark as if Haley had been advised by masters of negotiation rather than community organizers. And I am not referring to President Donald Trump, author of “Art of the Deal” compared to Barack Obama. I write of Robert Aumann.
Aumann on the Middle East Conflict
Noted Israeli Robert J. Aumann won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005 for his lifetime of remarkable work in “game theory,” also known as interactive decision theory. Aumann studied how people make decisions under different scenarios, such as encounters between strangers compared to negotiations between parties that will deal with each other many times in the future. According to Aumann, in a situation in which parties will only encounter each other a single time, there is pressure to make a deal and maximize gains. If the two parties know that they will be encountering each other for a long time, then the dynamics of the negotiations are completely different.
On December 8, 2005, as Aumann was accepting his Nobel prize, he said the following about war and peace (32:40):
“You must not be too eager for immediate results. The present, the now, must not be too important for you. 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. If you don’t want it, you may get it. It is one of those paradoxical upside-down insights of game theory, and indeed, in much of science…. Wanting peace now may prevent peace now. Wanting peace now may prevent you from ever getting it, not now and not in the future. But if you can wait, maybe you can get it now.”
Aumann added that the dynamic in negotiations needed to be coupled with the concept of punishment; that the actions of the two participating players would be met with responses not just from the counter-party, but outside forces (like the rule of law). However, if the intensity of the punishment was too great, the parties could conceivably view a long-term situation as a one-shot deal. Balanced pressure is the key for parties to avoid taking absolute positions and make compromises.
Aumann’s comments were both general in nature and directly related to the Middle East conflict. He made that perfectly clear in an article he wrote for aish.com about The Blackmailer Paradox, which is worth reading in full. Here is an excerpt:
“The political relationship between Israel and Arab countries is also conducted according to the principles of this paradox. The Arabs present rigid and unreasonable opening positions at every negotiation. They convey confidence and assurance in their demands, and make certain to make absolutely clear to Israel that they will never give up on any of these requirements.
Absent an alternative, Israel is forced to yield to blackmail due to the perception that it will leave the negotiating room with nothing if it is inflexible. The most prominent example of this is the negotiations with the Syrians that have been conducted already for a number of years under various auspices. The Syrians made certain to clarify in advance that they will never yield even an inch of the Golan Heights.
The Israeli side, which so desperately seek a peace agreement with Syria, accept Syria’s position, and today, in the public discourse in Israel, it is clear that the starting point for future negotiations with Syria must include a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, despite the critical strategic importance of the Golan Heights to ensure clear boundaries that protect Israel.”
Aumann goes on to argue that for peace to be achieved, Israel must make three basic changes to its position: 1) a willingness to renounce agreements; 2) a consideration of repeated games; and 3) faith in its positions. Conviction coupled with seriousness and the understanding that the parties will continue to deal with each other is the pathway to an enduring solution.
Obama on the Middle East Conflict
The United Nations has a long history of abusing the State of Israel. President Obama joined that global abuse as the US took many steps to distance itself from the Jewish State as well. But Obama took no such actions against the Palestinian Authority.
Free of any external pressure, the Palestinian Authority took the messages of Aumann to heart and held fast to the three tenants above. They were given a wide berth and global absolution for their crimes against humanity and their failures to advance the peace process. Without even subtle external pressure, the intransigence set in and the PA scuttled any peace talks.
Meanwhile, Israel collapsed under Obama on all three points. It was compelled to publicly state its support for a two state solution which may-or-may-not be the best outcome for an enduring peace. It was repeatedly pushed for “good will gestures” that showed that Israel would take immediate action and would not walk away from the table. And far-left wing organizations such as J Street and the New Israel Fund actively undermined the faith and conviction that Jews have a basic human right to live in homes that they legally purchase.
The peace process was left in shambles.
The Trump Administration on the Middle East Conflict
The Trump administration has taken a decidedly different tack on the Middle East conflict. It has removed the heavy hand pressuring Israel and has begun to apply some pressure on the Palestinian Authority, including withholding some direct and indirect funds.
At the UN Security Council, Haley also sought to set the stage for a lasting peace, by reminding the parties that this is not a one-shot deal, and that America is willing to wait for the parties to be serious about peace negotiations.
“I sit here today offering the outstretched hand of the United States to the Palestinian people in the cause of peace. We are fully prepared to look to a future of prosperity and co-existence. We welcome you as the leader of the Palestinian people here today.
But I will decline the advice I was recently given by your top negotiator, Saeb Erekat. I will not shut up. Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths.
The Palestinian leadership has a choice to make between two different paths. There is the path of absolutist demands, hateful rhetoric, and incitement to violence. That path has led, and will continue to lead, to nothing but hardship for the Palestinian people.
Or, there is the path of negotiation and compromise. History has shown that path to be successful for Egypt and Jordan, including the transfer of territory. That path remains open to the Palestinian leadership, if only it is courageous enough to take it…
Putting forward old talking points and entrenched and undeveloped concepts achieves nothing. That approach has been tried many times, and has always failed. After so many decades, we welcome new thinking.
As I mentioned in this meeting last month, the United States stands ready to work with the Palestinian leadership.
Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours.”
Haley understood that the pathway to an enduring peace lies with balanced pressure coupled with the ability to take a patient long-term approach, just as Robert Aumann’s lifetime of research demonstrated.
Hopefully, the new tactics will yield success.
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