Yisrael Aumann is an Israeli-American mathematician and a professor at the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Aumann received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis, sharing the prize with Thomas Schelling. In this interview with Fathom Deputy Editor Calev Ben-Dor he discusses how Game Theory can help Israel’s negotiating position, while insisting that Israel must preserve its sense of the sacred if it is to survive in the long-term.
Calev Ben-Dor: In 1948 you were enrolled at City College in New York. What are your memories of the establishment of the State of Israel?
Yisrael Aumann: I remember I was standing on a street corner in New York City when I heard the partition decision by the UN on 29 November 1947. I was very moved by it and it was around that time that I made the decision to move to Israel and make my life there. Like many Orthodox Jews, we had previously not been supportive of Zionism, associating it with the absence of Jewish observance. But that changed after the Second World War when the spirit of the creation of the state caught us and I became determined to move to Israel. My brother made Aliyah in 1950 and I in 1956.
CB-D: Before the Six-Day War, you were living in Israel as a husband and father, with war looming. You have summed up your thinking at that time in these terms: ‘Nobody knew what was going to happen and people were very worried, and I, too, was very worried. I had a wife and three children and we all had American papers. So I said to myself don’t make the mistake your father made by staying in Germany [in the 1930s]. Pick yourself up, get on a plane and leave, and save your skin and that of your family; because there is a very good chance that Israel will be destroyed and the inhabitants of Israel will be wiped out totally, in the next two or three weeks. I made a conscious decision not to do that. I said, ‘I am staying…’ As someone who has spent much of your life discussing rational action and decision making, can you expand on what your thoughts were then and why you made the decision you did?
YA: Well, one consideration was that we may be killed. The entire country was preparing for war, and we placed sandbags by our apartment. It took some deliberation and doubts, yet ultimately the reason we decided to stay is that this wasn’t like Germany – it’s our country. The attitude was: if we don’t stay and defend it who will?
Israel won the war, but it could have gone very differently. Later that summer I went to the US and worked for RAND Corporation, and the people there told me, ‘Robert, we were never worried about you. We knew you guys would come out on top’. I said: ‘If I would have been sitting in Santa Monica and you would have been sitting in Jerusalem, I wouldn’t have worried about you either.’ But it really could have gone differently.
CB-D: Let’s jump to 2005 when you and Thomas Shelling received the Nobel Prize for Economics in recognition of ‘having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis,’ i.e. your mathematical studies of how individuals and governments react to other people’s actions including in war. You are only one of a few Israelis to have won the Nobel Prize – especially if you take away the politicians. In addition to the personal achievement, to what extent do you also view this award through a national (or religious) lens?
YA: I was actually very moved by the Israeli angle. I remember staying at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, which is the place where all the laureates stay. Someone told me one morning, ‘as you go out of the hotel look up at the roof’. And on the roof they were flying seven flags, the Swedish flag and the six flags of the nationalities of the laureates that year, and right next to the Swedish flag was the Israeli flag. For me, that was moving.
CB-D: Your academic expertise is in game theory. Can you explain how this work relates to negotiations Israel has conducted? In your view, what has Israel been doing wrong in its negotiation stance?
YA: If Israel wants to live in peace with its neighbours, it’s actually doing everything wrong from the point of view of game theory! A very large component of game theory is about giving people incentives to do what you want them to do. So how does this work with peace? Well, study the ‘world champions of peace,’ Switzerland. The Swiss have been at peace for close to 450 years. A year ago I was vacationing in Switzerland with my grandson and saw military jet planes overhead. My grandson asked me: ‘Why do the Swiss need fighter planes if they’ve been at peace for so long?’ I responded that that’s exactly why! They have peace because they are strong. The runners-up to the Swiss are the Romans, who had a Pax Romana which lasted for about 230 years and who had a maxim: ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’
Yet while Israel does prepare for war, it’s not getting peace. That’s because while we may be preparing for war in hardware – investing in the tools of war such as tanks, missiles, ground forces and drones, we are failing to prepare for war in software – deep down in our hearts. To fully follow the Roman axiom, a country has to feel deep down that it is ready to fight. But our heart isn’t fully in it.
Deep down Israeli society has to be able to say ‘we want peace. But if you want war, let’s go for it’. Only then does one ultimately not have to go to war. But if a country constantly sends doves into the air and says how tired it is of war, and how deeply it seeks peace, the other side picks up on it. It’s not just that we don’t broadcast the right messages. But inside of us we don’t feel that we are ready to fight.
For example, take our current negotiation positions. Our claims to this land are not based on our history in the coastal area but rather in Judea and Samaria. Yet for 50 years, this area has been under military rule. When you say such areas are under a military (rather than a civilian government), you’re ultimately saying it’s not yours and that long-term you don’t belong there. If we don’t belong in places like Gush Etzion and Ariel then we don’t belong in Tel Aviv either. The fact we have had a military government [in the West Bank] for 50 years is really excessive and is what keeps the other side going. If we don’t feel we belong in these places then we should get out. It doesn’t advance the cause of peace or understanding when you don’t say what you want.
CB-D: There is a scenario you use – two people in the room who need to agree on dividing £10,000, yes?
YA: Yes, I tell that story a lot but it’s often misunderstood. Imagine that two people are given £10,000 to divide between them, but only if they both agree. The first person, the ‘rational one’ says let’s divide equally while the other demands £9,000 or threatens to walk out (and they’ll both receive zero). The first will most likely knuckle under, as he’d rather have £1,000 than nothing. So it turns out the seeming ‘irrational’ one comes out on top.
The response of the first one should be ‘I want £5,000 or I’m walking out. Now you decide’. Game theory understands this as a battle of the wills, and it is essential that each player convince the other that he is serious, that he’s willing to walk out unless his demands are met. Yet, in order to convince the other side that you are serious, you have to first internalise it and believe it yourself – otherwise convincing the other person will be impossible. It’s not a theatre; you can’t do make-belief. For the first person to be successful in the story, he has to deeply believe that he is not walking out of that room with less than £5,000. If he’s going to be ‘rational’ about it then he’ll lose out.
How does this work in the real world? 30 years ago an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) senior general came to discuss the negotiations between Israel and Syria with me, and said ‘the Syrians will never give up one inch of land because they see the land as holy’. So I told him this story and explained that the Syrians have managed to convince themselves that they cannot give up any part of the land because it is holy and that is why they have succeeded in convincing you.
That’s the point of the £10,000 story. That you first need to convince yourself of your red lines. The danger for Israelis is that nothing is sacred. We have no built-in red-lines. Yet unless a country has red-lines – something that under no circumstances it is prepared to cross – it will be unable to convince the other side of its seriousness. And that is why we can’t get through to the other side that we think we belong here.
CB-D: In 2006, at a conference for Bnei Akiva, a youth movement connected with the national religious, you said that Israel was ‘in deep trouble,’ adding that ‘perhaps only national religious Jews…can salvage the situation.’ You also said, ‘I fear the Satmars (an ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist movement which opposed Zionism because it was primarily secular) were right. As God was not involved in the building of the home, the Zionists’ work is in vain.’ What did you mean? And as Israel approaches its 70th birthday do you still feel that way?
YA: The original leaders of the Zionist movement such as David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann were secular but came from a religious background and felt attached to the Jewish people. But their mistake was to believe that it was enough to pass on a feeling of Jewish nationality without religion. But it turns out that they were wrong. To a large extent, many Israelis who don’t have the same background don’t really feel that a deep connection to this country. They feel Israeli and want to live here, but often not at the cost of being killed. But the only way for Israel to survive is if one feels really strongly about it, which more often than not comes from a religious background. This doesn’t sound right or logical, but these things are not logical.
The statement, ‘As God was not involved in the building of the home, the Zionists’ work is in vain’ is based on a verse from Psalms Chapter 127 which says ‘unless God is involved in the building of a project, it will ultimately be for nought’. In other words, unless there is something sacred in the venture, things will collapse.
When I said the Satmar movement was right, I didn’t mean I shared their anti-Zionism, but rather their analysis that Zionism as a primarily secular movement wouldn’t have a future.