Israeli Calculations

June 1, 2015

5 min read

Ira Sharkansky

The techniques come from economic concepts of benefits and costs, but the subject is not primarily money.

Most of those benefits and costs concern human life and welfare, and the postures of great powers that facilitate or complicate Israeli actions.

Once it was primarily about money, i.e., what Israel could receive from overseas Jews and friendly governments.

That is still in the picture, but over in the corner. More prominent is what Israel is selling to whom, now including multi-year deals to sell gas to countries that had been our enemies, with a controversy about how much of the profit should go to the government and how much to private investors

Most prominent are the non-financial calculations about other matters made by officials and commentators in this small country, whose people had always been dependent on more powerful others.

Israel is no longer a helpless petitioner, doing what it can to limit the damage from rapacious empires. It has enough military clout to threaten the peace of the world.

Israeli officials, unlike those around us, do not clog the media with threats to destroy, but they’ve done enough damage to those attacking, and have more in the basement, to assure a degree of independence Jews never had previously.

Israeli calculations about benefits and costs is most apparent in dealing with Palestinians.

The guiding lights are not to make things worse, and to keep restive and potentially violent Palestinians on a short leash. But not so short as to provoke an uptick in violence that might make things worse.

In other words, how much Israel can achieve with a minimum of cost to itself? The costs involved are not primarily financial, but lives (most importantly Israeli) lost or damaged by military action, or the costs of international criticism, a lack of cooperation from other governments, trading partners,, and threats of sanction.

There is little or no expectation that a Palestinian leadership will depart from an established policy of rejection. Turning down reasonable deals offered by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, and unable to bring themselves to accept the symbolic statement that Israel is a Jewish state in 2014 pretty much exhausted Israeli hopes. Still alive are factions saying that Israel has not done enough, but Netanyahu’s success in the 2015 election and statements of primary opposition parties (Labor or Zionist Union and Lapid) indicate that the Palestinians must find a miracle within themselves for Israel to embark on serious negotiations.

Meanwhile, Israel and Palestinians have worked out a number of deals, most below the radar of popular media, that allow considerable freedom for each party.

Palestinians have autonomy to run their affairs in the West Bank and Gaza under two separate regimes no less antagonistic to one another than either is to Israel. Animosity among Palestinian parties is one of the elements that keep Israel and Palestine apart.

Israel tolerates a degree of low level violence from both parts of Palestine, with responses meant to remind Palestinians of the dangers associated with escalation, but without creating their own reasons for escalation.

Outsiders wonder at Israeli tolerance, and demand a solution. Israel, for its part, tolerates stones from West Bankers and occasional missiles from Gaza without responding in ways likely to produce a full scale confrontation.

When Palestinians lose control over their restiveness and increase violence to unacceptable levels, Israel does up the costs, primarily to the Palestinians. More than 2,200 Palestinians killed in last year’s Gaza operation should keep things quiet for a while, with Israel accepting Gazan claims of victory as the blather of the hopeless..

Rockets that land in empty fields have brought IDF nighttime attacks against facilities not likely to be occupied. The point is to remind, without producing funerals and greater violence.

Currently the West Bankers have been threatening Israel with non-violent actions in the UN, the International Criminal Court, and the International Football Federation, as well as beating the drums behind the movement on campuses, among labor unions, and activists associated with BDS.

These are more annoyances than threats to Israel’s existence, countered by threats or actions to remind Palestinians of what Israel can do in a non-violent manner. The options include withholding funds collected at Israeli ports on Palestinian import taxes, and the prospect that Israel may keep all Palestinian football players–and maybe even Palestinian officials–from traveling overseas if Palestinian actions in international forums produce any tangible results.

In all of these actions, Israel tempers its own pressure when it appears–due to intensive intelligence gathering and assessment–that Palestinians are being pressured enough to bring about an increase in violence greater than young people throwing rocks, or an occasional rocket from Gaza that does no damage.

For all the comments seen about Israeli barbarism, there are comments about Israeli timidity.

The reality is far closer to the middle, with Israeli officials calculating, and arguing among themselves in a situation of uncertainty, about what actions will achieve a maximum quiet at minimum cost of lives, financial outlays associated with military action, and international political pressure.

With all the discomfort, critics should note that Israelis suffer much less violence than Americans, and somewhere in the midst of indicators for western Europe. At issue here are measures of criminal violence, and the deaths caused by traffic accidents. The curious and the doubtful can begin with Google.

There are no moral absolutes in these complex and uncertain calculations. Jews learned long ago that the commandment not to kill should be ignored if an enemy is about to kill. God violated the commandment not to lie when he told Moses to report to Pharoah that he was not taking the slaves to freedom, but to the desert for the sake of prayer. Rabbis allow the violation of the Sabbath in order to preserve life.

Non-financial economic calculations about benefits and costs also appear in Israel’s dealing with European and American authorities.

Much of what is relevant here also concerns the Palestinians, and negotiations with Iran.

Prime Israeli concerns are to minimize US and European pressures to make what seem to be pointless concessions to the Palestinians, and to maximize US and European efforts against the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons.

Israelis officials know that they can’t rule the world. Contemporary Jews should learn from the Palestinian experience that people who demand too much get little or nothing.

The latest demonstration comes from the International Football Federation. The Palestinian delegation demanded Israel’s expulsion, due to security forces preventing the traveling of players who had been involved in dealing with terrorist organizations overseas. Israel offered to negotiate a settlement, the Palestinians rejected compromise, and ended up withdrawing their demands with no tangible accomplishments.

Calculations are no easier with respect to US or European initiatives. Elected officials and professionals at the top of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, the IDF, and intelligence agencies argue about what comments and actions are most likely to achieve desired results.

Israeli politicians, including the Prime Minister and some of his colleagues in the government, express their own hyperbolic claims of what should be done.

It’s not easy comprehending what’s important in all the noise from many sides. The results of calculations about benefits and costs are more apparent on what is actually done.

None of this is neat, nor does any of it guarantee results in the short or long term. Using a reasonable standard of assessment, rather than any ideal aspirations for complete peace or moral absolutes, the results in recent years have been okay, or even better.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Shark Blog

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