Game Theory of the Israel Palestine War Essay

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Game theory: How the irrational behavior in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be explained by the 'rational' analysis of Game theory

Game theory is based upon the presumption that international actors are rational 'black boxes' that carefully calculate their options and move as homogeneous units in the chess game of global politics. The messy, multifaceted nature of Middle Eastern politics would seem to belie such an assumption. However, according to Robert Wright's 2002 Salon.com article "Both sides now" many devoted game theorists steadfastly insist upon the application of game theory to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Game theory, according to its adherents, can be helpful in predicting the complex interplay of state and non-state actors, by demonstrating why seemingly irrational behaviors have a rational basis, depending on the individual actors' interests and levels of knowledge of different game players.

For example, in theory, peace should be mutually beneficial to both the Israelis and Palestinians -- sharing territories would result in fewer terrorist attacks and greater economic development. But brokering a peace, from the point-of-view of Palestinians, might result in an upsurge of attacks from radicals against moderate leaders. From the point-of-view of Palestinian radicals, peace could mean a sacrifice of what justifies their existence in society. The potential gain in negotiations might be tenuous for someone who is uneducated, already disenfranchised, and has established his or her social and political role solely around the ideology of militant radicalism. After his brokering a peace with the Israelis in 1993, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat became as controversial among Palestinians as he was once in Israel: "revered by many as the father of their country, reviled by others as an autocrat, a divisive and sometimes indecisive buffoon, a traitor" (Wright, 20004, p.3).

Game theory is sometimes over-simplified to suggest that its advocates believe that every state or non-state actor in international politics is a rational being. Game theory is instead based upon the principle that in situations of inconsistency and incomplete information, actors must estimate the probability of different situational outcomes and 'rank' their preferences of different options to maximize gains and/or minimize losses; often in a way that is unsatisfactory (Beavis 2010). A classic example of game theory as applied to international relations might be that of MADD, or mutually assured destruction during the Cold War. The potential, mutual negative consequences of a nuclear holocaust were so great, that neither side wished to incur the risk of nuclear war, thus it was irrational to allow conflicts to spiral out of control, given what could potentially ensue. However, one obvious objection is that quite often during the Cold War, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, although ultimately a 'rational' compromise was achieved, or a positive sum game with more than one winner and loser, some American generals advocated a very hawkish strategy that would have likely inflamed relations with the Soviets, while others, possessing the same information, adopted a much more conciliatory stance, which President John F. Kennedy eventually adopted.

A rationalist might counter that good sense 'rationally' prevailed during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus proving the basic premises of game theory. But in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is hard to argue that this has always been the case. For example, in 2000, the long-time Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat "walked away from a proffered settlement based on the Oslo Accords proposed by Prime Minister Ehud Barak -- the biggest compromises Israel had ever offered" (Miller 2004, p.1). The 1993 Oslo Accords were widely considered a landmark in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and such a fortuitous situation as occurred in 2000 might not occur again, within the lifetimes of any of the current negotiators. By signing the original 1993 Oslo Accords, Arafat agreed to recognize Israel, accept the United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, and renounce terrorism, 'rationally' conceding by implication that Israel was a permanent fixture in the international landscape. "By recognizing Israel, the PLO renounced the Palestinian people's claim to 78% of historic Palestine, in which they had lived for centuries. The next day [Prime Minister] Rabin signed Israel's letter, recognizing the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and declaring Israel's intention to negotiate with the PLO. Implicit was Israel's recognition of Palestinian demands for self-determination and independence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip" ("Oslo Accords," Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, 2004).

A second agreement included in the Oslo Accords provided for a five-year plan for Palestinian self-government and a timetable for Israel's withdrawal from the contested territories of Gaza Strip and the West Bank, followed by elections and greater autonomy for the Palestinians. However, the agreement outraged many radicals on both sides. Hamas and other Islamic militants increased their terrorist attacks upon Israel, Arafat's own rhetoric became less diplomatic, and Israelis elected the militant Likud party to replace the more conciliatory Labor Party soon afterwards ("Oslo Accords," Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa, 2004). Thus, the need to pander to a wide ideological constituency to remain in power, game theorists would suggest, encouraged Arafat until his death to behave in a manner that was irrational for his people and for the future of peace, but rational from his point-of-view.

One reason for apparent state irrationality, game theorists state is: "diverging interests between people and their leaders. In war, even people on the 'winning' side die…wars are at some level lose-lose. But the winning political leader doesn't die, so from the leaders' point-of-view, conflict may seem purely zero-sum; when the fighting is over, one leader will stand triumphant and the other will be disgraced. Both Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon seem to be looking at things that way, focused largely on annihilating the other guy" (Wright 2002). Also according to game theory, "in a two-person zero-sum game, what one actor wins the other loses; if a wins, 5, B loses 5, and the sum is zero. In a two-person non-zero or variable sum game, gains and losses are not necessarily equal; it is possible that both sides may gain" as in the case of the dissolution of the Oslo Accords (Beavis 2010). From the point-of-view of Hamas and to a lesser degree the Likud, peace might be a 'loss' but further conflict was a net personal gain for both, opposing militant sides, even though the PLO and the Israeli Labor party experienced a loss of prestige as well as peace. If peace had been successfully negotiated, Hamas would lose its ability to govern the Palestinians through radical actions and the Likud would lose its ability to win elections by fear-mongering. Suffering did "wonders" for the approval ratings of radicals after the fall-out after the 2000 failure to negotiate a lasting peace. This is both a classic "rally-round-the-flag" effect but also reflects that short-run political incentives are particularly advantageous for far-right leaders in a conflict-ridden situation when they "stick with a tough, uncompromising posture" (Wright 2002).

This analysis makes Middle Eastern radical parties and terrorists seem craven in the extreme: allowing violence to continue to bolsters militant leaders' own reputations in the short run. It could be countered that eventually the public will grow so weary with war that this strategy will backfire against radicals. However, since the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leadership has been growing increasingly radical, rather than moderate, as exemplified by the ascent to Hamas to a position of political leadership, not merely a satellite radical group as was the case in the past. Israeli settlements have correspondingly increased rather than decreased in the occupied territories. While such a response seems calculated to inflame tensions, a rationalizing game theorist would suggest: "In the classic non-zero-sum game…you get more points for just refusing to cooperate than for trusting the other player and then getting burned" (Wright 2002). A lack of a reason to trust the opposition, results in an escalation of war. "In the Middle East, trust is famously lacking on both sides. Israelis feel that any concessions will be greeted by more bombings, and Palestinians feel all 'interim arrangements' are designed to allow the construction of more Israeli settlements in the West Bank" (Wright 2002). Attempts by the Likud-led Israeli government to expand settlements have only fueled such fears: 1,600 planned settlement units in the occupied territories were announced recently (Read 2010).

Yet the late Yasser Arafat's rejection of the 2000 peace agreement has still been called inexplicable from a 'macro' rational perspective: "The Israeli proposal appeared to meet most of his earlier demands, but Mr. Arafat held out for more…effectively torpedoing" the accords, and soon afterwards, "Ariel Sharon, then in the opposition in Israel, visited the Jerusalem plaza outside Al Aksa Mosque in late September. Palestinians erupted in violent protest, igniting what came to be called the second intifada. That campaign has killed more than 900 Israelis and almost 3,000 Palestinians, and plunged the fragile Palestinian Authority into armed conflict" (Wright 2000). Arafat's lack of trust in Israel, became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Despite his knowledge of Hamas's radical nature,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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