Nobel Prize laureate: Israel must reoccupy Gaza Strip

At the Table: Prof. Yisrael (Robert) Aumann, who won the Nobel Prize for work on conflict, cooperation through game-theory, said Israel should establish military presence in Gaza.

By Erica Schachne, Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman, JPOST    1 April 2024

Prof. Yisrael Aumann in his Baka home in Jerusalem.(photo credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN)

Israel must reoccupy the Gaza Strip and consider rebuilding Jewish communities in the coastal terror enclave if the country wants to prevent another Oct. 7, Prof. Yisrael (Robert) Aumann says matter-of-factly.

Conversing over cups of slow-brewed, fresh filtered coffee, the 93-year-old Nobel Prize winner is confident that not only must Israel “actually remove Hamas from Gaza” but also learn from its mistake of withdrawing in the first place.

“The event that led to the current situation was the Disengagement,” Aumann says of Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that uprooted 9,000 Jews from their homes – many of whom were once again uprooted after the Hamas massacre. “Let’s draw conclusions from that. It would be wrong to make a repeated mistake. Certainly, we should not do that in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria – whatever term you prefer – and we should not do it again in Gaza.”

Prof. Yisrael Aumann is seen receiving the Nobel Prize in Economics from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Dec. 10, 2005. (credit: Jonas Ekstromer/AFP via Getty Images)

“We’ve been [in the West Bank] for 57 years and still have not annexed it,” he says, stroking his long white beard. “It’s not good. We should at least declare our legitimacy. But at least we are there physically. It is more difficult for us to pull out because of those people [living there].

“That’s game theory,” he continues. “We’re giving ourselves an incentive to stay [in the West Bank]. One of the most important principles of game theory is the principle of incentives.”

AUMANN HAS graciously welcomed us into his spacious, well-appointed Baka home. As we enter, we are met with the charm of three delicate white cups adorned with tiny blue flowers, a bowl of buttery sugar cookies, and a small plate of precious dried apricots brought from California by a family member (“the only thing you can’t import from Amazon”). Despite his remarkable intellect and extensive life experience, Aumann’s demeanor remains humble and kind during our two-hour visit.

We sip strong brew and discuss topics ranging from politics and warfare to the Torah. Synchronicity seems to be in our favor: Asking how one who subscribes to game theory would process a chok (Torah commandment without a given/logical reason), we mention the prohibition of shatnez (cloth containing both wool and linen). Aumann then opens a translation of Shaarei Orah and quotes an esoteric passage on the subject he had studied with his grandson that very day.

Aumann: The families of hostages may inadvertently strengthen Hamas

Aumann believes that the intense campaign for the kidnapped is essential, but he worries it may inadvertently strengthen Hamas by showing them the extent of public concern. This could lead to Hamas making unacceptable demands, ultimately harming our war efforts.

The families “are making it clear to Hamas that this is very, very, very important for us, and they are making it clear that it is even more important than it is, and as a result of that, Hamas demands an end to the war. They’re still in power in Gaza, which is something which we cannot possibly agree to,” Aumann says.

“If you want to buy a home at a reasonable price, and you visit the apartment and the real estate agent is there, and the owner is there, you do not go to the porch and say, ‘What a beautiful, grand view.’ That is also game theory; you are giving an incentive to the other side to charge more,” he says. “The families of the kidnapped are doing this. They are shooting themselves in the foot. They’re shooting us in the foot.

“I want the kidnapped returned, but not at the cost of losing the war.”

Aumann admits that “The world is against us.” But he believes that “a bigger problem is that we are against ourselves. We say, ‘Beyachad nenazeach’ [Together we will win]. But we are not beyachad.”

He puts game theory in terms we can understand: A game can involve any number of players, even up to a million, but it has to have at least two, Aumann says. Each player influences others to varying degrees while pursuing different, sometimes opposing, goals. The theory can be applied in various scenarios, from sports like soccer (where teams represent players) to geopolitical conflicts, like the “game” between Israel and Hamas.

The essence lies in strategizing to maximize personal gains while recognizing that others are doing the same.

“You want to do the best for yourself, taking into account that the other players are also trying to do the same – doing what is best for themselves and not for you,” Aumann says. “There are formulas and strategies,” he adds, and as a general rule, you always want to get the most information on your opponent possible.

But the real-world application of game theory can be tricky. “People are not necessarily doing what’s optimal,” he says with a smile.

AUMANN IS the father of five adult children, two stepdaughters, 21 grandchildren, and 38 great-grandchildren. Sadly, his son Shlomo was killed in the 1982 Peace for Galilee operation in Lebanon.

He says only one of his kids is into math; the rest are pursuing other careers. But he’s not disappointed.

“I think people should do what they like to do because what they like to do is what they do well, and what they do well is what they like to do,” Aumann tells us, recounting his childhood in Brooklyn, New York. He says his parents sent his brother to learn accountancy when he wanted to be a journalist. Soon after his brother got his degree, he left accountancy and became a journalist and editor.

“I told my children that we [as parents] had set the buffet: ‘Now you can choose whatever you want from it.’”

Aumann, born in Frankfurt, Germany, says he was not raised in a Zionist household. On the contrary, his parents, who were both religious and educated, were part of Agudat Yisrael and “opposed to Zionism.” But after the War of Independence and the struggle for the state against the British and the Arabs, Israel “caught our imagination, and we made a 180-degree turn.”

His older brother moved to Israel in 1951, and Aumann came five years later. Soon after, his mother made aliyah as well.

“I came at the height of the Sinai campaign, and we drove in a taxi from the Lod Airport to Jerusalem in the middle of the night – a moonless night – without lights,” he recalls. “We were concerned about being bombed by the Egyptian Air Force.”

Then he laughs. Small in stature, his chuckle is soft.

 “You know,” he tells us, “it’s still the same road, more or less. Maybe it’s been improved or widened a bit. And in Jerusalem at the time, there was one traffic light on the corner of Jaffa and King George. And it didn’t work. Nothing has changed.”

Aumann takes us on a tour of his massive, seemingly museum-quality Renaissance-era Italian paintings, each depicting a different biblical scene. He points to the one depicting wise King Solomon “practicing game theory,” illustrating the famous story of two women who both claimed a baby as her own.

An inherited Torah scroll sits in a small ark in the corner of his sitting room; an engraved rendering of the Ten Commandments puts the spotlight on the five dealing with bein adam l’chavero (interpersonal conduct). A small desk houses his computer. Aumann learned to use Zoom during the pandemic and has now perfected his lighting system to ensure he looks his best in interviews, he tells us.

Despite the Gaza war, Aumann says he still believes that peace is possible.

“I am tired of the fighting,” he says. “We’ve been fighting for more than 100 years, and the world has been fighting for thousands of years.

“War has been the one cost of human history. It is terrible,” he continues. “There is enough room for them and us in this country.”

He says that one of the provisions of the Oslo agreement was education: that Israel educate its children to get along with the Arabs and vice versa. But Israel never insisted on this, and “it was a big mistake on our part.”

“In this conflict, both sides promote their goals to the best of their ability, but what are the goals? Our goal is certainly not to destroy the Arabs. Their goal is, but ‘they’ are not necessarily one entity.

“Their children are taught to hate us, they are taught to want to drive us out,” he concludes. “That is what we should change.”

We end the visit on a happy note: In response to our question about whether he will be dressing up for Purim, Aumann rummages around in a closet and comes back wearing a colorful jester’s hat atop his head.

Aumann, who won the Nobel Prize alongside Thomas Schelling for their work on conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis, suggests that Israel establish a military presence in Gaza and explore the possibility of resettling citizens there, similar to what it has done in the West Bank.

“There are people who call what we are doing in the West Bank ‘occupation,’ and it is,” he says. Aumann’s voice is sweet and calm; and the creases near his eyes appear smiling, no matter the subject.

April 2, 2024 | 3 Comments »

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3 Comments / 3 Comments

  1. Simply said. We must not any longer be Peresite followers. There will never be common lives with those beasts.

  2. Seems to me his use of the word “occupation” at the end of the article was meant literally, not legally, as in “illegal occupation”, but people will purposely misconstrue what he said in order to paint him as just another “right wing extremist settler”, while at the same time ignoring his other statement: “there is enough room for them and us in this country.” Of course that can only work if, as he intimated, people, particularly young people, aren’t taught to hate their neighbor. While it may take many years if not a generation or more to undo the damage done over at least the last 30 years, the fact that roughly two million Israeli Muslim Arabs don’t think and behave the way their Arab brethren do in Gaza and J&S gives one hope that this may be possible hopefully in the not too distant future.