The Negative Sum Game

A spy is sent to Israel from Prague in the old days of the communist era. His task is to look up a man named Levy in Tel Aviv, give him the secret password, “The fish is cooked; it will not rain tomorrow,” and collect some top-secret documents. The spy goes to the address of an apartment house and rings a bell on a first-floor door marked “Levy.” A man opens. “The fish is cooked; it will not rain tomorrow,” says the spy. The man just stares at him. “The fish is cooked; it will not rain tomorrow,” repeats the spy. The man’s face brightens. “Oh, you must be looking for Levy the spy,” he exclaims. “Two floors up, on the left.”

This old silly joke illustrates something about the intensity of information flows in a country as small and tight-knit as Israel. Most people know everything, and many seem to know more than that. There is no keeping a secret.

So now someone approved the plans to build another 1600 homes in Ramat Shlomo and Bibi did not know about it. Eli Yishai did not tell him. Mayor Barkat would not let him know. It was all work of nameless petty bureaucrats who do not read the papers. Please.

People who give credibility to the above do so largely because they find it impossible to believe that anyone with the IQ of the Israeli prime minister would do anything as guaranteed to anger the one important ally Israel has, during a vice-presidential visit to boot. Apparently they have not heard the story about Henry Kissinger who bought a piece of cloth which was not enough for a suit to be made in New York, but a tailor in Jerusalem made him two suits and a pair of trousers from it because in Jerusalem “you’re not such a big man.”

It’s not that Israel does not take the U.S seriously when it feels it has no other option. It is not beyond it, however, to tweak the superpower when it feels it can get away with it. Apparently Bibi feels he should not be unduly worried.

He might be right. The administration is increasingly unpopular at home, it is entangled in a massive legislative fight and it faces a very difficult midterm election. And the Palestinians have not gone exactly overboard to rush into the proximity talks that Biden planned to unveil.

On the whole this seems to be the latest classic example of what happens when the mediator is the only one to expect anything from the process he wants to mediate. In theoretical terms, what we have is a game with a negative sum. Both sides feel they are to lose if they cooperate, and to lose if they don’t. Only asymmetrical strategies promise any real gain. The reason for that is the absence of an overlap between the minimum position and the maximum concession either side is willing to offer.

Are they and the rest of us with them, condemned to another 10, 20, or 50 years of this conflict? Under the existing paradigm it is quite likely unless the game changes. For that to happen, it is worth remembering that the only significant change on the ground in the last 30 years was the Israeli evacuation of Gaza, and that was a unilateral move. In contrast to classical versions of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, it was also an asymmetrical move, which brought tangible benefits to both sides although both would quite symmetrically deny this.

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