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Tit-for-tat is not merely retaliation

Posted By Obadiah Shoher On January 31, 2012 @ 9:07 am In morality | 1 Comment

Confidence-building looks good on paper. The assumption that both sides want to end the conflict but are reluctant to do so is mistaken. In real life, they want to win the conflict rather than end it. Hope dies last, and neither party loses the hope to prevail, especially when the confidence-building measures fan the hope.

Confidence-building is essentially a string of concessions, and each concession is a mini-victory. Victories encourage.

When the opponents exhibit hostility rather than free will, confidence-building does not work even in theory. The confidence is already there: each party is confident of the other’s hostility. No amount of handshaking between their leaders can obviate the fact that the Jews and Palestinians would love to see each other dead. The Jews who recite daily, “Remember, O LORD, against the children of Edom the day of Jerusalem” are not as nice as your temple “rabbi” leads you to believe.

The alternative to confidence-building is clearly laid out: tit-for-tat. Anatol Rapoport’s algorithm is probably the closest to the lawgiver’s intent: cooperate on the first move, then repeat your opponent’s move. Jews tried cooperating with Arabs eighty years ago; now it’s the time for unforgiving retaliation. There islittle doubt that adequate, unrestricted retaliation would be more efficient in reaching a peace deal with the Arabs than any confidence-building. Indeed, retaliation too builds confidence.

Various tit-for-tat scenarios generally presume that both sides are equally powerful. Israel has a better strategy: instead of decades of tit-for-tat retaliation, she can get rid of her opponent once and for all by expelling the West Bank Palestinians into their own state, Syria. Sixty years ago, Syro-Palestinian nationalists did not imagine themselves a separate nation.

There is an Axelrod problem to the conflict. Researching various tit-for-tat strategies, Robert Axelrod figured out that pure retaliatory strategies do not win. Predictably, in multi-player systems the other players line up against the harsh retaliator – if, like Israel, he fails to extinguish the threat soon. Israel failed to extinguish Arab presence in our land, and scores of countries lined up against us for our retalitary anti-terrorist operations.

This is a very important thing: pure tit-for-tat always wins in the short-to-medium term with a moderate number of players. The fact that the game extends into the long term shows the retaliation to be inadequate. The Torah prescribes tit-for-tat only on a personal level: no individual offender is sufficiently strong to threaten society. It is, therefore, enough to punish him in tit-for-tat fashion. But a totally different logic is applied to nations: according to the Torah, enemy nations must be exterminated. Unlike modern politicians, our lawgiver did not imagine that Palestinian Arabs would cease their terrorism because Jews kill a Palestinian for every Jew murdered by terrorists. For Arabs, a murdered Jew is not just a casualty, but a military, nationalistic victory. Jews, accordingly, need a victory of their own, not just a single dead Arab.

Much fuss is made out of Axelrod’s forgiveness. From various simulations, it seems that the best strategies forgive past offenses and switch to cooperation after the opponent starts cooperating. In practice, such conditions never hold. A previously hostile opponent would cooperate only half-heartedly, waiting for the chance to defect and strike in the back. It is foolish to cooperate with someone like that. In the simulations, cooperation is defined narrowly as piggy-backing your opponent’s friendly moves. Good enough. The Arabs refrain from terrorism, we refrain from retaliation. The Arabs claim none of the land we hold, we claim none of theirs.

Any other strategy is demonstrably a losing one.


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