Gideon Israel
Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center

One-Stage Thinking

Thomas Sowell, one of America’s most prolific writers on culture, economics and politics wrote about an idea called one-stage thinking.  He recalls that as an undergraduate student studying economics, his professor, Arthur Smith, asked him his opinion on a certain policy issue.  He answered with enthusiasm explaining the benefits of the policy he advocated.  His professor proceeded to ask, “And then what?” The question caught Sowell off guard but he thought about it and spelled out what the economic reactions would be.  Yet his professor persisted, “And what will happen after that?”  Sowell started to realize that what he thought would be economic benefits turned out to be much less desirable in the long run, and started to waver.  But his professor continued, “And then what will happen?”  By now, Sowell explains, he began to realize that the economic reverberations of the policy he supported were likely to be disastrous – much worse than the situation he had sought to improve.

This is an exercise that anyone may and should do before making an important decision.  It forces a person to contemplate the long term reactions and consequences to a present decision.  It educates a person to weigh in the various expected and unexpected factors in decision-making.

We stand on the eve of what will likely be another ground invasion into Gaza and one wonders if Israeli policymakers ever executed such an exercise.  As the year 2012 comes to a close Israel finds itself in a peculiar situation where none of its borders are secure.  Israel relinquished the Sinai to Egypt about thirty years ago in exchange for peace.  It brought some years of quiet, though not necessarily attributable to the peace treaty.  Yet now, controlled by our enemies the Muslim Brotherhood, one can only imagine the plans of the Egyptian army in the next decade.  The lawless Sinai has already given Israel a taste of what is yet to come.

Going a bit north we arrive in Gaza, a beautiful tropical area turned over to the PA, and later overthrown by Hamas.  Mortars and missiles have rained down on the south for a decade.  A place of stone throwers and Molotov cocktail makers has gradually become a place where rifles and machine guns are turned towards Israel.  And after many years under PA control mortar shells, mines and anti-tank missiles became the norm.  After Israel’s retreat from Gaza, anti-aircraft missiles, short range and long range missiles have been added to the daily routine.

Let’s travel to the northern border with Lebanon, where Ehud Barak announced thirteen years ago that Israel is relinquishing its security zone.  Why?  What are we doing in Lebanon anyway?  Soldiers are being killed and the IDF is ineffective.  Maybe the security zone guaranteeing that missiles can’t reach our major cities is not so important?  A strong, coherent,  argument?  – unless you think past stage one.  Heroically, Barak ordered the IDF to flee from Lebanon like bandits in the night, abandoning positions, allied south Lebanese soldiers and other weapons in but a few hours on a dark night, thus demonstrating the true strength of Israel.  Thirteen years later soldiers have been kidnapped on two separate occasions, and Hezbollah, the reinforced Iranian army, stand at their posts with missiles that can reach any destination in Israel.  Israel has been through a war, and besides for the loss of life, was monetarily expensive and only temporarily scared Hezbollah, but did not restore deterrence.  Moreover, the war showed that maybe the IDF is not as strong as presumed.

Continue journeying east toward the Golan and the Syrian border.  Many Prime Ministers, including Ehud Barak, and reportedly Bibi Netanyahu, would have been more than happy to give away this essential and important strategic  piece of real-estate to the Assad family had they only been able to utter a few sentences of peace and love on Israeli television (in Hebrew, of course).  They would have also needed to let Israel retain one or two percent of the territory.  But that’s small stuff.  A few poems of love and Assad bringing some Damascus style hummus to Jerusalem would have helped Israel come around.  Currently, Syria is undergoing a revolution which will probably overthrow the Assad family, and had a peace treaty been signed it too would fizzle away with the Assad regime.

Rolling back southward towards the hills of Samaria and Judea, this is the area that would have been under Palestinian control, had Abu Mazen, or his predecessor Arafat, been able to garner up some common sense.  The Israeli populace was told that it is essential to make peace with the Arab moderates before the extremists takeover – because the moderates ‘like us’, they want to live with us…in a hudna.  Had the PA controlled Judea and Samaria, it is highly unlikely that they could resist the temptation to join in on an all out attack on Israel, nor would they cease in working to achieve their ultimate goal – the destruction of Israel.

In each of the aforementioned cases the same rhetoric dust was thrown into the eyes of bewildered Israelis.  Statements like: We need to retreat because then we will have the necessary international support or legitimacy to attack those who attack us.  We need to retreat because the price of staying in a certain place is too costly.  How about: We need to retreat from specific territory since it is difficult to attack our enemies while they are among us.  Once we have distance ourselves from them, then mounting an attack will be less complicated.  Another example: It is imperative that we sign a peace process with this Arab or that Arab leader because if we do not, we’ll be stuck with extremists who want to destroy Israel.  Yet, the difference between the two is:  the moderate one wants to do it in phases while he wears an Armani suit and Pierre Cardin tie and uses words like fascism, racism and human rights to the delight of the Western world.  The extremist wants it to happen immediately while he brandishes a rifle on live TV wearing fatigues, a ski cap, and chants ‘death to Israel’.

All the previous statements and claims used as rationale for retreating or making peace have been proven one by one to be false, baseless and out of touch with reality.  As Israel faces clear and present dangers from each of its borders in 2012, not to mention Iran from a distance, the policies of our government are simply unraveling in front of their eyes.  The international community has never supported us – except for when Israel is retreating or relinquishing some valuable asset.  Israel has never gone in and completely destroyed our enemies after they attacked it from relinquished territory – though Israel doesn’t destroy enemies, they merely ‘send them messages’.  In fact, attacking the enemy has only become more complicated with increased international pressures and worry about potential civilian casualties.

These are examples of smart people who have made poor judgments and have navigated Israel into increased dangers.  There are deep cultural and identity issues which led to poor judgment and damaging policy decisions; those issues need to be seriously addressed as a root problem. But there is an additional problem which is much more apparent, surface level, and utterly catastrophic: one stage thinking.  It is as if no one thought what happens if we take a particular action..and then what happens… and then what…and what are the final consequences.  It’s careless and reckless thinking about only the present situation, and only about today’s challenges.  Eat drink and be merry, for who cares what will be tomorrow – everyone will probably have forgotten who caused the problems.  No thought given as to what potentially will happen tomorrow or the next day.  No contemplation about how we operate when things go wrong or how a situation evolves and develops into something which is more dangerous than our current situation.

It reminds me of the comical description Aaron Miller writes in his book The Much Too Promised Land  about Ehud Barak, sitting late at night in some room in the White House, disheveled, looking like a ‘mad professor’, as he describes, sitting at  a table covered with maps, trying to figure out some final recipe for a peace process.  This whole scene is surreal: the Prime Minister of Israel gambling with the future of the state, late at night, feeling pressured – though no one is applying pressure, too quickly make a decision or present a plan which will affect Israel for decades.  But it’s also one stage thinking.

One almost wonders what our policymakers were thinking when they left Lebanon?  It wasn’t obvious that Hezbollah would continue their attacks.  It didn’t cross their minds that maybe Assad would be overthrown and any peace treaty signed would become worthless.  After continually attacking the south for five years the writing wasn’t on the wall that the attacks would continue if Israel retreated from Gaza.  The possibility of Hamas seizing power didn’t cross anybody’s mind.  And when Anwar Sadat came to Israel with a swastika’s on his tie the festivities continued – his other ties were probably being ironed.

As the attacks continue from Gaza the barometer for one stage thinking will be the messages that we hear from the Israeli government.  If this operation is about ‘restoring deterrence’, ‘sending them a message’, ‘hitting them hard’, than we will know that it’s about solving the problem of increased attacks over the past week.  If the government starts conveying messages like, ‘Our goal is to destroy Hamas’s infrastructure permanently’ or ‘the mission is to create a situation on the ground where Hamas lacks the ability to continue attacking Israel in the future’ – then the Israeli population can rest assured that the leaders have moved past one stage thinking.

About the Author
Gideon Israel is the Director of the Jerusalem Washington Center which focuses on strengthening US-Israel relations through mutually beneficial policy projects.