Hidden Asymmetries: A Horrible Hostage Deal
Tiny minorities have effectively forced Israel into a horrible hostage deal, and we must not allow this to keep happening if the Jewish state will win its war against Hamas.
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“Skin in the game,” the idea of directly exposing yourself to risk when making a major decision, is vital for effective politics, risk management, and military conflicts.
But having “skin in the game” doesn’t come from watching the news, regurgitating political mantras, or tagging along with the latest-trending hashtag on social media. It comes from being “the man in the arena” — to borrow an instant-classic phrase from a speech given by one-time U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt proclaimed on a Paris spring day in 1910. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”
Roosevelt, like Israelis today, knew that looking good “on paper” is easy. Especially nowadays. You simply need to pick the right set of generic principles, know how to superficially talk about them, and surround yourself in echo chambers which reinforce what you want to hear and see.
But this MO is unlikely to get our local communities, our countries, and the greater world closer to real, meaningful, sustainable progress.
The problem, however, is not just that many of us don’t want to engage in deep conversations and truly listen to others, even and especially when we don’t agree with them. And it’s not just that doing something against the mainstream, standing up, and speaking out are unquestionably hard because they involve a delicate dose of risk.
The problem is that there are those, often a tiny minority, who think they have plenty of “skin in the game,” so much so that it effectively forces the rest of us to play by their rules. This is known as “hidden asymmetries.”
The majority of people, by and large, are good people, yet we have laws due to a small percentage of bad apples. The majority of people are not extremists on either side of the political spectrum, yet our politics are dominated by a small number of loud and obnoxious extremists.
What’s more, revolutions are unarguably driven by an obsessive minority. And the entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people.
This week, the hostage deal that unfolded was not wholeheartedly endorsed by a majority of Israelis, but it was a tiny “progressive” minority in the United States who essentially convinced Democratic politicians to convince the U.S. president, Joe Biden, to put tremendous pressure on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to accept this horrible deal.
“Israel’s acceptance of the terms of a hostage deal with Hamas late on Tuesday reflected the intense pressure brought by the Biden administration to reach an agreement,” wrote Michael Shear, a White House correspondent for The New York Times.1
At the same time, Netanyahu was particularly pressured by some 30,000 Israelis (0.003-percent of the Israeli populace) who last week joined the hostages’ families for a five-day march from Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, to admirably show support for the hostages and their families.
Let me be clear: I and no one in Israel are advocating against the hostages, their families, and the 30,000 Israelis who marched last week. Nor am I arguing against a deal to urgently release children and women from some 50 days of captivity.
But make no mistake, this is a horrendous deal for Israel because we didn’t (a) secure many more hostages during the initial four-day period of the temporary truce with Hamas, and (b) receive all the abductees on the first day of this temporary truce, or at least increase the number of hostages released per day.
In all likelihood, Israel was forced into making this deal because of tiny, loud groups of people, both in the U.S. and Israel, another one of the endless examples of “hidden asymmetries.”
“A ‘stubborn minority’ can impose its will on the relatively uninterested majority,” wrote Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a writer and mathematical statistician.2
Moving forward, Israel and Israelis must learn from this debacle, so as to prevent ourselves from being influenced by these hidden asymmetries, for they will only undercut the Jewish state’s ability to successfully restore national security and enact powerful deterrence against our enemies who might want to test us in the future.
This brings us back to “skin in the game.” When someone has “skin in the game,” they bear a cost for their actions (or inactions). A fund manager who gets a percentage on wins, but no penalty for losing, is incentivized to gamble with his clients’ funds. Bearing no downside for our actions means we don’t have true “skin in the game,” which is a source of many evils.
If Israel waited a few more days so we could put more military pressure on Hamas to achieve better terms, any state not named Israel and any society not named Israeli wouldn’t have suffered any significant downside. In other words, the U.S. and other countries like Qatar and Egypt (Hamas’ negotiating partners) have no true “skin in the game.”
Sure, America’s loud minority would have continued to make a ruckus, but honestly, who cares? They’re going to make a ruckus anyway, because these “progressives” are never happy about anything. Let’s face it.
Instead, we are presented with a reality in which Biden’s administration has become an “intellectual yet idiot” — a term coined by the aforementioned Nassim Nicholas Taleb to describe a semi-intelligent, well-pedigreed group that incompetently tells others what to do and how to do it.
According to Taleb, “intellectuals yet idiots” treat others as abnormal for doing things they don’t deeply understand, without ever realizing that it is their understanding which may be limited. “Intellectuals yet idiots” think others should act according to the best interests of these “intellectuals yet idiots,” who in turn think they know what is in the best interests of others.
“When people do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the ‘intellectual yet idiot’ uses the term ‘uneducated,’” Taleb wrote. “What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: ‘democracy’ when it fits the ‘intellectual yet idiot,’ and ‘populism’ when people dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.”
Taleb points out that being educated and “intellectual” does not always mean that someone is not an idiot for most purposes. “You can be an intellectual yet still be an idiot,” he said. “‘Educated philistines’ have been wrong on everything from Stalinism to Iraq to low-carb diets.”
And boy have American politicians, in the last several decades, been wrong about the Middle East. Even Israeli military chief Herzi Halevi attested to this sentiment earlier this month, in an Israeli war cabinet meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
During the huddle, Blinken told Israeli leaders they must do more to ensure noncombatants in Gaza are not harmed by the fighting between Israel and Palestinian terrorists. Halevi countered by telling Blinken there would be even more noncombatant casualties if Israel’s military took the advice of U.S. generals sent to advise Israel on the operation in Gaza.
Still, the Israelis are in a precarious position, because we will surely benefit from American military aid when the fighting in Gaza resumes and Hezbollah, sensing Hamas’ definitive defeat, starts to really kick things into gear from southern Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border. Just in the last week or two, as Israel’s military made impressive gains in Gaza, Hezbollah nearly doubled its attacks on Israel compared to the first month of the Israel-Hamas war.
So, yes, it would be foolish for Israel to agitate the Americans, who upon the war’s start moved one of their aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean Sea to keep Hezbollah at bay. But it would be far more foolish for the Israelis to not finish what they started in Gaza, especially with the momentum its generated during the last few weeks, and especially with the existential threats that Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah pose to Israel’s national security.
This is why, if the Israelis have to make a tough decision about acquiescing to American pressure or doing what’s right by the Jewish state, we must be unshakable with the Americans, knowing that Israel has, by far, the most “skin in the game” in this conflict. And knowing that the true “skin in the game” which America possesses is ultimately to maintain vital relations with a strong, stable Israel in the volatile Middle East.
With this in mind, the Israelis must convey to the Americans, directly and respectfully, that we truly appreciate all you’ve done for us, and we will continue to appreciate whatever you agree to do in our favor, but this is a fight that we must continue to fight, whether or not you fully agree with our mission (even though you explicitly said you did at the war’s start, but never mind).
We hope you, the Americans, will continue to support us, because we have no doubt that the world is a better place with a robust American-Israeli bond, but if for whatever reason you don’t want to publicly and/or privately support us, we accept your decision, and we’ll see you down the road, when there are better days in front of us.
After all, it’s we in Israel who have the most “skin in the game” in this war. We are the people “in the arena” whose faces are marred by dust and sweat and blood; who are striving valiantly to defeat the pure evil that is Palestinian terror; and yes, who from time to time err, because, as President Roosevelt correctly pointed out, there is no effort without error and shortcoming.
So, while we would genuinely appreciate America’s continued support for our cause, we will not be threatened by you cutting off your aid to us. We are not the subordinate, insecure, distressed Jews of yonder years. We are proud, confident, determined Jews with more civilized history than America and Europe — combined.
The U.S. government did not come to our aid when the Nazis unleashed a genocide against us. The U.S. government did not come to our aid when we were striving to found our country. The U.S. government did not come to our aid when we fought our war of independence against five Arab countries.
We overcame the Holocaust, we founded our country, we fought for our indigenous homeland, and we died for it. We will stand firm and defend our Jewish state. And, if necessary, we will die for it again, with or without your aid.
“Political Pressures on Biden Helped Drive ‘Secret Cell’ of Aides in Hostage Talks.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/21/us/politics/biden-hostage-talks-israel-hamas.html.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. “Skin in the Game.” Random House. February 27, 2018.