Israel’s response could be so much better

There is a lot to be disappointed about in the current conflagration between Israel and Palestine.

The world is getting more peaceful every year, but that little area around the Dead Sea remains a hotbed of conflict and violence. Since long before I was born, there has been conflict there. Is there any way to make it stop?

I’m not a foreign policy expert, I’m not theist in any way, and I’ve never been to the middle east.

But I am trained as an economist and I’ve done a lot of reading on Game Theory. And it suggests to me the response of Israel to Hamas rockets is probably far from optimal.

Rocket attacks are not a brilliant strategic move by Hamas. They are motivated by anger. And the more Israel looks like a bully that willingly kills civilians, the angrier Gazans will get.

Equally, military force deployed by Israel is disproportionate, strategically unsound and seemingly driven by anger.

The killing of children kicked off this escalation. Strategic thinking has evidently played little part so far. But it will be required to end the violence.

When the death toll in a “war” stands at over 500 to 20 (Reuters, 21 July), it is clear one side is doing more than the other. It might be imagined that the higher the willingness of Israel to be really aggressive, the faster Hamas learns to stop firing rockets. But that’s not what the theory says.


Time and again, proportional responses have been shown to be winning strategies in game theory situations. Pitted against many highly computationally complex theories, a strategy of tit-for-tat developed by Robert Axelrod has proven to be a winner in producing cooperation.   

In this instance, each rocket attack could be defined as the move of a player, and met with proportional responses, rather than much larger missile attacks and a ground offensive.

The downside from Israeli government’s perspective is that it would be perceived as the government valuing Palestinian lives as much as their own.

Tit-for-tat has its critics. An undeniable problem with tit-for-tat in the real world is distinguishing and agreeing on whose “turn” it is, although such a problem may be soluble by a formal announcement that reciprocity in any 24 hour period depends on the outcomes in the preceding 24 hour period.


Another approach backed by Game Theory, is called Graduated Reciprocation in Tension Reduction. It was developed in the 1960s as a way to address the Cold War and is optimised for breaking a stalemate. It involves one side announcing it will make a unilateral move to reduce tension, and then inviting the other side to respond.

“GRIT may have a greater effect on changing the “enemy images” that fuel conflict since it uses unsolicited gestures to signal a willingness to pursue common interests to an adversary who has heretofore seen the conflict in zero-sum terms. Nevertheless, GRIT also has shortcomings that need to be taken into account. In particular, the work of Lee Ross on “reactive devaluation” strongly suggests that the mere act of offering a concession decreases its perceived value in the eyes of the recipient (Ross, 1995; Ross & Ward, 1995).” source

De-escalation by one side is the only way for the conflict to return from boiling to simmering. I place the responsibility for making the first move to stop this “war” at the feet of Israel.

Some might argue that is unfair. But with the kind of moves Israel has made, Hamas lacks the capacity to play tit-for-tat. How could it mount a ground invasion? While Israel is a nuclear armed power, Gaza is not even a state, Hamas fighters are not real soldiers, and who knows how effective the chain of command is. The side that has an international reputation is Israel.



Israel may be investing in its reputation for being hard, rather than being irrational.

If a change in global polarity is coming, driven by the rise of China, Israel may perceive a need to be ready.

The US, may have a rival within decades. If China rises and forms an alliance with the oil-producing states that lie a short pipe-line away from its western border, the strategic imperatives for the US of supporting Israel may diminish.

Perhaps, in recognition of that, Israel has decided it will need to form a lasting peace within decades. If so it may be currently investing in a reputation of being mad and dangerous, in order to maximise concessions in that peace.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

One thought on “Israel’s response could be so much better”

  1. Maybe the incentives for key agents on all sides – there are many players at the periphery including Australia – are stronger for keeping the conflict going than working towards peace. Have you read the short story “War Fever” by J.G.Ballard? It’s only when these change that any progress towards peace will be made. I haven’t looked into it much but how did 9/11 effect the conflict in Northern Ireland? I wonder if it had anything to do with reducing the indifference towards terrorism amongst the Irish community in the US.


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