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Aumman: The Blackmailer’s Paradox

By Trig Mabrey
web posted October 10, 2022

Many of us have experienced the blackmailer’s paradox, even though we may not recognize it. This powerful conundrum goes something like this: You and your friend have a box of money to agree to split. You offer to take half and half, as seems sensible, but your ”friend” sees an opportunity. He says that he’ll take 90/10, or neither of you are leaving with any. You are now hostage. Either his will breaks first, or you are leaving ripped off.

Yisrael Armman is a Nobel prize winning author who very aptly compares the current Israel-Palestine conflict to this paradox.

Aumman points out that the blackmailer’s paradox applies to the current state of the Levant. Syria has taken the role of the “blackmailer” and depends on the entire Golan Heights as an initial position, before any negotiations are made. This forces Israel to accept a blatantly disadvantageous result, in order to further their goal of peace. The main problem though, is that Israel doesn’t have to play this way.

Aumman gives Israel three options to get out of this vicious cycle:

  • Be willing to walk away with nothing

  • Take the long game into consideration, and

  • Be just as confident as the opponent.

The first two points are closely tied. If Israel can recognize that there is time, it leaves it free to not give in for the short term. While walking out without any money is painful, if you know the box of money will reappear in a few months, you can come back later in a stronger position: in certainty. This brings in that lost trick: belief in your own options. The Blackmailer’s paradox fails when met with two equally stubborn players. If Israel returns without being cowed at the start, the playing field is level once again. If not, and Israel gives in to begin, then a cycle of blackmail and extortion begins.

I applaud Mr. Aumman’s analysis of this situation. He, in a surprisingly objective way, is able to distill the very complex situation down to strong principles of game theory. However, his main flaw lies in this distillation. The blackmailer’s paradox only addresses the choices of the “reasonable” party. It does not seek to examine the mind of the blackmailer, which leaves a gap in planning. One of the first rules of warfare is to know thine enemy, and Aumman forgets to do so, blinded by the unilateral nature of the comparison. Syria also has their own “unacceptable” demands, which in one of the thornist current diplomactic situations overlaps Israel's own strategic interests. Thus, on Syria’s side, they are confronted with their own “blackmail” and grinding both sides into a deadlock. This will end up unfruitful, not fulfilling the end desire for peace, only preserving the status quo, with its dubious benefits.

In conclusion, the blackmailer’s paradox excellently describes the situation in the Holy Land. However, Mr. Aumman’s analysis, though excellently explained and reasoned, has a crucial flaw: failing to recognize the game as double-sided.


This is Trig Mabrey’s first contribution to Enter Stage Right. (c) Trig Mabrey


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