Nobel Advice: Israeli strength and peace, according to Prof. Yisrael Aumann

Prof. Yisrael Aumann says Israel should signal strength to its enemies, annex parts of Area C, prepare for war and provide incentives for peace.

Prof. Yisrael Aumann stands in front of the board in his office (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prof. Yisrael Aumann stands in front of the board in his office
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ON THE whiteboard in his office at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Edmond J. Safra Campus at Givat Ram, Prof. Yisrael (Robert John) Aumann has written in his own handwriting a quotation from former US president Barack Obama, “The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it.” At the beginning of our interview, I ask him why he wrote it there.
“Yes, we have to internalize that insight,” says Aumann, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005 for his original work on conflict and cooperation via game theory analysis. “People shout, ‘Peace, peace,’ but actually shouting ‘Peace, peace’ may actually push peace away. Everything has a reason. The reason is that it’s a game, OK? We’re not in a situation which we control by ourselves, so it’s very important to give the right signals to the other side or sides. The signals that you give to them are going to determine how the future unfolds.”
Just then, the door opens and in walks Harvard University Prof. Eric Maskin, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Economics for laying the foundations of mechanism design theory. After briefly giving Maskin directions to his home, Aumann turns to me and quips in his strong New York accent, “This place is teaming with Nobel Prize winners!” When Maskin leaves, Aumann explains what he does at the university.
“One of the things that the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality and the Institute for Advanced Studies runs is a summer school in economic theory, which Maskin has been running for the past 10 to 15 years,” he says. “Previous to that was Prof. Kenneth Arrow, who was probably the most famous economist in the second half of the 20th century and a good friend of mine. When he at the age of 87 retired, Maskin took over.” Arrow, who died on February 21, 2017, at the age of 95, won the Nobel Prize for Economics together with John Hicks in 1972.
Aumann excuses himself for 10 minutes to run an errand, during which time I review my notes on him. Our interview is taking place on June 27, just weeks after his 88th birthday. Aumann was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on June 8, 1930, and escaped to the US with his family in 1938.
He studied at a yeshiva high school in New York City, and received his doctorate in mathematics from MIT in 1955, which was also the year he married Esther Schlesinger, an Israeli whom he met while she was visiting the US. A year later, they moved to Israel, where he became a member of the Mathematics Department at the Hebrew University, and after stints as a visiting professor at, inter alia, UC Berkeley and Stanford, he returned to Jerusalem, where he teaches at the Institute of Rationality, which was founded in 1991. He and Esther had five children, the oldest of whom, Shlomo, was killed while serving in the IDF during the 1982 Lebanon War. Esther died of cancer in 1998, and in 2005, Aumann married her widowed sister, Batya Cohn. That was also the year he won the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, commonly known as the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Aumann returns to his office, checks something on his computer, sits back in his chair, and across a desk piled with books ranging from Judaism to economics, we begin the interview.
At the age of 88, do you still come to work every day?
Well, yes, unless I’m abroad or doing something else. Like on Sunday, I didn’t come to work because I was hiking in the Golan. I got up at 5 in the morning, and we drove up to the Golan with two great-grandchildren, one grandchild and Prof. Avi Shmida, a botanist who is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality and who organized the trip. Unless I’m doing something else, let’s put it that way, I come to work, except Friday and Shabbat.
How does the Obama quote that you’ve written on the board apply to our situation today?
Well, let’s get the principles down. Let’s say you want to buy an apartment, OK? You don’t want to spend too much money for it, but you need a new apartment and you want to move. So when you go and look at apartments and start negotiating a price, you don’t necessarily want to tell the seller, “This is a great apartment” and “What a view! It’s so centrally located and such spacious rooms” and so on. (He laughs.) It might not be such a good idea, right, if you don’t want to pay a lot of money for it. You don’t want to start the negotiation over the price that way. So if you keep saying, “We want peace, we want peace, we want peace,” you’re not necessarily going to get it that way. Because the price keeps going up, OK. If you really want peace that badly, then evacuate Tel Aviv! (He smiles broadly.)
What do you mean?
Well, you have to say you’re interested in it, but you can also say to the other side, ‘You want peace? Fine. Let’s make a deal.You don’t want peace? That’s fine too. It’s up to you.’ Then you get peace. But if you shout “Peace, peace” all the time and you have posters with doves on them, like we do over here, you’re putting peace out of reach.
So it’s paradoxical. I’ll give you another example.
I was with my grandchild in Switzerland a few years ago. I go with each of my grandchildren and now I’ve even started last summer with a great-grandchild. When they’re about 14, I go with them for a couple of weeks abroad, one on one. Just that child and me. It’s not a bar mitzvah tour, because bar mitzvah kids are a little too young.
Anyway, we did some climbing and hiking, and on one of these hikes, there were some planes screaming over. So my grandson asks me, “What are those jets?” I said, “Those are Swiss Air Force fighter jets.” He said, “But what do the Swiss need fighter jets for? They’ve been at peace for 450 years.” I said, “You know why they’ve been at peace for 450 years? Because of those fighter jets.
OK?” The Swiss are the world champions at peace, so if we want peace, we should look at what they’re doing.
You also have written up on your board, under the Obama quote, the Latin phrase, Si vis pacem, para bellum.
The runners up to the Swiss are the Romans.
There was the Pax Romana, which lasted well over 200 years. It kept the whole Western world at peace. How did they do it? Now, I don’t like the Romans, OK? They destroyed the Temple and they were cruel people, but they kept the peace, and if you want peace, you have to look at what they did. The motto on my blackboard, “Si vis pacem, para bellum” means “If you want peace, prepare for war.” That’s a Roman proverb, OK, and people don’t understand that. You know, I was at a conference of sorts of a medical unit of the IDF, and someone said, “We never come up with this. We don’t have to deal with this because it never happens.” But I say (he raises his voice), “You have to deal with it in order to keep it from happening!”
You related to this in your Nobel Prize lecture, “War and Peace.”
I quoted from the Book of Isaiah (he recites Isaiah 2:3-4 in Hebrew), which ends with the famous words, “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” What I said in my lecture is that Isaiah is saying the nations can beat their swords into ploughshares, but when will this happen? Isaiah’s answer is only when there is a Lord recognized by all. In the absence of that, one can perhaps have peace – no nation lifting up its sword against another – but the swords must continue to be there. They cannot be beaten into ploughshares. The nations must continue to learn war in order not to fight.
Weapons systems exist in order not to be used. That’s game theory. Thomas Schelling (who died on December 13, 2016 at the age of 95), who shared the Nobel Prize with me, gave his talk on the past amazing 60 years. Our Nobel Prize was awarded in 2005, which was exactly 60 years after the last time atomic weapons were used in anger. First at Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki.
But for 60 years, nobody used atomic weapons in anger. So his lecture was entitled, “An Astonishing 60 years: The Legacy of Hiroshima.” What was it that kept the weapons from being used? Well, they were there – that’s what kept them from being used. Both sides had them.
What would your best advice be to President Trump or Prime Minister Netanyahu to strike the ultimate peace deal?
You know, Trump is doing OK as far as peace is concerned, and nobody really knows what the details of his deal with the North Koreans are. He seems to be doing OK, and I think a part of that is his rather belligerent stance before Singapore, and his belligerent stance on Iran. So the North Koreans say, “This man means business. You can’t fool around with him. So there was a lot of tough talk on North Korea, and tough action on Iran and Syria. Unlike Obama, he went into Syria as soon as they used poison gas. Obama said, “They passed my red lines,” but that’s not the way to achieve peace.
What is the way?
If you want peace, you have to demonstrate a certain amount of toughness. Otherwise, you are giving incentive to the other side to be aggressive. You’re motivating them to be aggressive. And you can’t do that. If you want to buy an apartment, you can’t do it, and if you want peace, you can’t do it.
How do you see the Oslo Peace Accords?
Oslo was a disaster, as we have seen, but they really tried to negotiate peace. It was not a capitulation like the Munich Agreement in 1938. The mistakes in Oslo were different. The problem was that there was no one to talk to. Arafat at the time was not really a peace partner. You know, Oslo might have worked out. I think we’re really making a big mistake in this whole process.
I used to be upset when people would talk about “the occupation.” It’s our country, which we’re willing to share with the Arabs, so why do they call it “occupation?” But a while ago, not too long ago, I changed my mind. It is an occupation. We have a military government in Judea and Samaria.
There’s been a military government for 51 years now. If you have a military government, then you have an occupation. That’s what an occupation means. I think if we want peace, we have to end the occupation.
What do you mean by that?
What do I mean by ending the occupation? I mean that we belong there, but there has to be some kind of application of Israeli law in Judea and Samaria. Area C is very large, comparatively. It’s not as big as Siberia, but it’s quite large and there’s lots of empty land and lots of Jewish communities there. I think we should go ahead, take the initiative and annex large tracts of Area C.
I’m a little leery of Caroline Glick’s idea of annexing all of Areas A, B and C, the whole thing. I think that’s too many Arabs, OK? (He laughs.) Really the problem may not be the Arabs themselves, but us, our Supreme Court, our judicial system. It’s going to make life very different for so many Arabs under our direct control. An Arab minority is OK, even if they’re not very friendly. But when you’re talking about 30 or 40 percent of the population, that’s different. So I’m not in favor of annexing all of the territories. But in the areas where we (Jews) live, and some of the empty areas, which there are a lot of, we have to say we belong there. It is not an occupation. We’ve been here for thousands of years, and not only for thousands of years, but also for hundreds of years and dozens of years. We’ve been here. By the way, I’m opposed to the use of the word “Palestinians” to describe Arabs only. Whenever people talk to me about Palestinians, I say, “I’m married to a Palestinian.” She has a Palestinian identity card, because it was issued by the British Mandate, in Palestine.
And on the Mandate coins, it was written, “Eretz Yisrael” (the Land of Israel) on one side in Hebrew, and on the other side, it was written, “Palestine.” Eretz Yisrael and Palestine were the same thing. You were editor of The Jerusalem Post. It used to be called The Palestine Post. So “Palestinian” does not describe Arabs; it describes both Arabs and Jews. The Palestine Post was a Jewish newspaper.
The Palestine Symphony Orchestra, I don’t think, had any Arabs in it. When you use the term “Palestinian” to refer to Arabs only, you’re throwing in the towel. Because you’re saying the natives are Palestinian and the Jews are colonialists. The use of the term “Palestinian” to apply to Arabs only means that we are not natives, we don’t belong here. What are we? We’re colonialists. And colonialism doesn’t exist any more. So we have to assert ourselves here.
In what way?
Let me say one more thing. Signaling weakness when you are weak is OK. But signaling weakness when you are strong, that makes for trouble. Because it encourages the other side. You signal weakness, so they think you’re weak. They’re not going to be amenable to any dialogue, because they’ll say, “We want the Jews out of here.”
In Gaza in 2005, we signaled weakness. We said, “All you have to do is kill enough of our civilians, and we will withdraw.” But it’s not true. If it was true, OK, say it. So what we are doing by shouting “Peace, peace,” and by expelling ourselves from Gaza – other nations have expelled Jews, and other people have also been expelled – but we are the first people to have exercised the right to expel ourselves. That signals weakness and capitulation. So they’re right when they think we’re going to leave here.
We have to make it clear that we’re not going to leave. And saying it is not enough.
Actions are more powerful than words. We have to demonstrate that we’re not going to leave, that we’re staying.
One way of doing this is by applying Israeli law to Judea and Samaria, on parts of Area C, not the whole territory. Believe me, I’m a champion of peace, but the way to get peace is not to call for peace ad nauseam.
You know, I lost a son in the war, and I’m entirely sincere. (He pauses with emotion.) But the way to get it is not the obvious way.
You need a little bit of game theoretic thinking; not very much, but a little. One thing is, you have to make it expensive, OK? I have a friend who was one of the founders of Peace Now. His name is Ariel Rubinstein, and I learned something from him, and that is, if you want to succeed in a negotiation – I’ll put it very non-technically – you have to make the lay expensive. If you keep saying, “We are ready for peace. We are ready for peace. And we’re waiting for you to come, and it’s not going to cost you anything. Take your time,” then it’s not going to get you peace. You have to make it expensive. You say, “As long as you don’t have an agreement with us, we’ll extend Israeli law a little bit every year,” or something like that. I would suggest now extending Israeli law to large parts of Area C.
Unilaterally or through negotiations?
There’s one more thing I want to say, and that is it’s useless to speak to what’s called the Palestinian Authority, because whatever they say or sign is not worth the paper it’s written on. They cannot enforce it, even if they have good intentions, which they don’t. The Fatah, or Palestinian Authority, was in control of Gaza, right, but they were kicked out by Hamas. There’s no guarantee that these people are there to stay. So whatever we do we have to do unilaterally, OK? We can unilaterally annex areas in Judea and Samaria, and unilaterally build roads for them, because one of the most aggravating parts of the occupation – which it really is now – is the roadblocks. So we should build roads for them so we don’t have to have roadblocks.
How would you approach securing the return of the two Israelis being held by Hamas, and the remains of the two soldiers killed in Operation Protective Edge?
I want to go back to history: the Schalit deal, which was an absolute disaster. We have this problem now because of the Schalit deal. I spoke out against it at the time, and I was in some kind of panel discussion with Gilad Schalit’s father, and he said what he said, and I spoke out against it to his face.
I understand him completely, pushing for the release of terrorists for his son. There were even posters calling for the release of “terrorists with blood on their hands” in exchange for Schalit. He has a right to wage a campaign, but our government should not have given in to this. It was a big mistake.
And we should not repeat this mistake, and certainly not for bodies. This is crazy, I’m sorry. It’s utterly crazy. It achieves nothing.
What we should do maybe is take some steps in Gaza. I’m not in favor of cutting off electricity or water, because that is punishing the people who don’t have anything to say. Some things, like concrete, can be used as bargaining chips, but I don’t think there’s much to bargain about. I think we have to put a stop to this business of paying for prisoners, even live prisoners.
WE INTERRUPT the interview for a cup of coffee. I ask Aumann how many cups he drinks a day. “About 20,” he says, smiling again. As we sip our coffee, he remembers that there’s a relevant passage on pidyon shvuyim (redeeming captives) in the Gemara.
He spends the next 15 minutes patiently looking for it, first on his desk computer, and then, after wheeling his chair to his library, among his many books. He scours over the tiny print in a large commentary on the Talmud, and finally exclaims, “Here it is!” He reads it in Hebrew. “One does not ransom captives for more than their value because of tikkun olam, and one does not help captives escape because of tikkun olam.”
(Bavli Gittin, 45; 31) In other words, he says, “no more money must be paid for the redemption of prisoners than what they are really worth – because of tikkun olam.”
The text refers to tikkun olam, which is generally translated today as “repairing the world.” But no, Aumann insists, this is not what it means in the Talmud.
“In the whole Talmud, what tikkun olam really means is doing things that are incentive- compatible. Laws that are not incentive- compatible are not going to be obeyed.
The Mishna and Gemara don’t make it explicit. The Rambam (Maimonides) says it explicitly – not to give incentives to the enemy to pursue us.”
He then takes another 15 minutes to find the reference in Maimonides. “Ah,” he exclaims, in a Eureka moment at the end of our interview, and reads the following sentence in Hebrew: “Prisoners should not be redeemed for unreasonably high ransoms, so that enemies should not pursue people to kidnap them.” (Maimonides, Codex, Laws of Charity, Chapter 8, Section 12).
Realizing our time is up, I say, “Let me see if I understand you. You advocate a carrot- and-stick policy, of providing incentives and disincentives to the other side?” “That’s right, negative and positive, carrot and stick,” he responds, nodding his head, and getting up to say goodbye. “The whole world is about incentives. That’s it. That’s the essence of game theory.”