Israelisches Tanzhaus e.V.

Saul Singer: Backseat Diplomacy

An essay about Israel's military restraint
in the first year of the so-called 2nd Intifada

How is it that a kid about the height of my knees knows how to negotiate?
Actually, the art of negotiation is just the beginning if the innate diplomatic skills of children. If you want to understand Israel’s policy of restraint and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s non cease-fire, look no further than the kids in the back seat of your car.
The kids in the back seat intuitively understand that the optimum ‘level of violence’ is enough to bother their sibling, but not enough to be seen by their parents in the front seat. They understand that, if they are particularly successful, they can provoke the other kid to go just over the line in his response, so that the parents end up yelling at the victim rather than the aggressor.
Getting parents to blame the victim works particularly well when the parents are predisposed to blame one kid no matter what - perhaps because he is stronger, older and ‘should know better’. Even if the parents are not biased against one kid, the instigator can take advantage of the fact, that parents are often more interested in peace and quiet than justice or responsibility.
The harried parents, who at this point are wondering who called this ‘vacation’, have a number of options in dealing with the brawl in their back seat. They can let the victim defend himself. They can physically intervene. They can threaten to punish both sides. They can decide who is responsible and just punish them. Finally they can just tolerate the noise and assume that it will not get out of control.
To many parents, the simplest, most all-purpose solution is blanket blame accompanied by blanket threats - no quiet, no dessert. Who’se got the patience to sift through who started it, whether the victim’s reaction was proportionate or not, and other thorny distinctions? The problem with this seemingly pragmatic approach is that diffusing the blame and punishment also diffuses the deterrent effect for the future.
After all, the whole thing started because the little instigator knew from the beginning that there was a fair chance of having her cake and eating it, too: bothering her brother and getting him yelled at in the bargain. If the impish provocateur had known that her parents would see through her game and she should get caught and blamed, she might not have started needling in the first place.
The key to quiet, not just for one car-ride, but for the range of situations in the future, is to make sure that blame and consequences fall in a lop-sided way on the aggressor, and as little as possible on the victim.
So much for the international community’s - oops, parents’ - perspective.
What about the hapless older brother, trying to mind his own business?
Being young and naive, he might believe that, even if the world as a whole may not be just, at least he can expect a fair shake from his parents who never cease to profess their love and support. Accordingly, his first repsonse is not to fight back, but to call on the denizens of the front seat to weigh in and solve the problem.
But what if those parents respond, ‘let it go, she’s not really bothering?’. Then the child has two options: restraint in the hope that his parents will finally punish his tormentor, or retaliating himself and risking punishment. Whether restraint makes sense or not depends a lot on the nature of the parents. If restraint highlights who is to blame and results in punishment for the aggressor, it makes perfect sense to be restrained. But if the parents refuse to distinguish between victim and aggressor, he has little reason to restrain himself because he’ll be punished in any case.
When parents make no effort to determine responsibility, the child actually has two good reasons not to be restrained: only his action will provide deterrence, and the parents may get the message from automatic retaliation that the only way to peace is to deter the provocateur.
A bitter debate is now raging over whether, as [Israel’s] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon argues, ‘restraint is a component of power’. But this question cannot be answered in a vacuum. Israel’s current high level of restraint only makes sense if the international community is doing what it takes to end the Palestinian attacks against Israel. If the United States and Europe instead pressure Israel to accept a ‘low’ level of violence, Israel not only has no reason to be so restrained, but good reasons not to.

In: The Jerusalem Post, 13 July 2001 (Friday), A9

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last update: September 19th, 2001