First Law of Political Thermodynamics: For every action there is an unequal and opposite reaction

At a press conference a few weeks ago, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon explained the government’s attempts to influence events in Gaza through both military action and pressure on the general population. “Palestinians in Gaza know the truth,” he asserted. They understood that the Hamas regime was responsible for their woes, and would act against it. “A combination of steps will bring an end to the Hamas regime in Gaza,” Ramon said.

Ramon was half right. Nothing affects Palestinian public opinion like Israel actions – just as nothing affects Israeli public opinion like Israeli actions. But as the latest Palestinian poll results show, the reaction is usually in the opposite direction of what the initiator of the original action expected. Ehud Barak’s attempt to put the Palestinians in a diplomatic corner in the summer of 2000 did not produce an agreement to his liking. It produced popular anger that ignited into an intifada. The intifada did not push Israel to make a better deal; it destroyed Israeli faith in negotiations.

The most precent poll by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) shows the reaction to recent Israel actions and inactions – pressure on the civilian population in Gaza, continued settlement, failure to advance in the Annapolis process:

…change included increased popularity of Hamas and its leadership, increased support for its positions and legitimacy, and greater satisfaction with its performance…

Contrary to what Ramon expected, Israel strengthened the Hamas government.

The flaw in Ramon’s analysis, if it’s any comfort, also fits a known pattern, as laid out by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and fellow researcher Jonathan Renshon in their article “Why Hawks Win” last year in Foreign Policy (If you missed the article, put in on your required reading list now):

Several well-known laboratory demonstrations have examined the way people assess their adversary’s intelligence, willingness to negotiate, and hostility, as well as the way they view their own position…

Even when people are aware of the context and possible constraints on another party’s behavior, they often do not factor it in when assessing the other side’s motives. Yet, people still assume that outside observers grasp the constraints on their own behavior…

That is: people expect empathy but don’t show empathy. Ramon expects the Palestinians to see things as he does: This is all because of Hamas. Palestinians – or at least the uncertain center among Palestinians – did not respond that way. Under attack, they rallied around Hamas. Those who think out their support for terror attacks expect that Israelis will understand that this is a reaction to their unbearable suffering. Most Israelis respond by concluding that “these people” will always want us dead.

If there’s a hope of breaking this cycle, it includes making the maximum effort to understand how one’s actions will look from the other side of the battlefield. Ramon failed that test, but he has lots of company.

7 thoughts on “First Law of Political Thermodynamics: For every action there is an unequal and opposite reaction”

  1. How about both sides showing some real empathy and compassion? Wouldn’t that at least be simpler and more certain in its effect–though not easy to do, of course.

    I have been trying to argue this case in the surrogate Israeli/Palestinian wars that take place on internet fora–this is a global phenomenon, and particularly trying to get European liberals to view Israelis in this way. I keep being surprised by the forcefulness of the pushback and the angry atmosphere that follows in people that see themselves as peaceful and compassionate (though this wouldn’t surprise you I suppose).

  2. I don’t know if this point is in the Kahneman article, but a well-known principle in social psychology is sometimes called the “fundamental attribution error,” which boils down to: I understand my actions as having been determined by circumstances; I understand others’ actions as having been determined by their intentions.

  3. I am afraid you have confused your physics. The First Law of Thermodynamics says “energy is conserved”. The “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” is one of Newton’s Laws.

    You are quite right, though, that Israeli leaders project their own views and values on the Palestinians. I heard this in a lecture from someone who worked for years in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Many people there have said for years that “Syria deep down wants peace with Israel and to break its alliance with Iran”. Also former AMAN (IDF military intelligence) Uri Saguy is still maintaining this, even though the Syrian/Iranian alliance seems rock solid…they perceive it to be winning. Saguy and the other keep thinking to themselves “if I were Assad, I would want to make peace”, so on this basis, they make their assessments.
    Similarly, in the period leading up the Six-Day War, the MOSSAD’s official assessment was “Nasser won’t heat up the situation, he is bogged down in a war in Yemen, his popularity is declining in Egypt due to economic stagnation..he realizes war with Israel is not in his interest”. So much for these “experts”.

  4. it will take a dramatic change in the US attitude towards Syrian before Syria will break their pact with Iran. The Syrians aren’t stupid and won’t stand by while Iran is wrecked with no guarantees that they won’t be next on the list. My guess is that the Syrians would love to make a deal with Israel, but it has to be a deal that provides them with meaningful security guarantees.

    Why not go further and make a deal with the Iranians. The calculus is the same for them. I strongly recommend Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance for anyone who hasn’t come across it: the ideology is a cover for the geopolitics. Just like Israelis and everyone else they want security.

  5. Chris, why do you think the Syrians “would love to make a deal with Israel?” The Syrians view their alliance with Iran as the winning combination…they see the popularity of extremist Islam as personified by Iran and their HIZBULLAH allies (yes, Syria is secular, but they play up to the religious extremists)
    and what they perceive as American and Israeli military and political decline and “decadence”. A peace agreement with Israel could endanger their influence in Lebanon, since part of the population there hates Syria and wants independence.

    Many people believe a peace agreement with Israel would mean the ultimate downfall of the minority Alawite regime in power in Syria. Opening Syria up to outside influence and loss of the “Zionist bogeyman” might cause Syrians to question why they have to put up with the corrupt, totalitarian regime that has been impoverishing them for years, without the regime having the conflict with Israel to rally ’round the regime.

    If all the Iranians want is “security”, why are they carrying out an imperialist (yes, that is the word for it) policy in the Middle East spending huge amounts of money they can ill afford trying to buy influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan and other places and sending troops as well to some of them?

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