Yair Lapid
Photo: Yoni Hamenachem

Our problems are simple

Op-ed: Israel’s problems only look complicated, but history proves that they’re not

I’d like to propose a wild idea.


It contradicts everything we’ve been told for years now, so you will have to show some patience.


It goes something like this: Our problems aren’t complicated.


This doesn’t mean we can resolve them at once. In fact, often, just because they are simple, nobody wishes to resolve them, yet this doesn’t mean they’re complicated.


How could it be? That’s simple too: There are enough people out there who don’t want the problem to be resolved. They cannot say out loud that it can be resolved, so they prefer to make it complicated.


For dozens of years, for example, there were people who explained to us that we cannot resolve our problem with Egypt. Professors at universities specialized in the balance of power vis-à-vis Egypt, many military intelligence officials warned us about Egypt, the press was full of articles that analyzed Egypt’s domestic situation, or its economy, or the Egyptian army’s buildup.


And then Sadat picked up the phone, and it turned out that all these people were spewing nonsense. Within a surprisingly short period of time borders were drawn, treaties were signed, and ever since then we’ve had peace with Egypt.


Something similar happened to all the people who performed reserve service in Lebanon in the years 1984-2000. Such people would look around at the scarred hills in the Land of the Cedars and ask themselves quietly: What are we doing here?


There were many detailed answers, which included tens of thousands of documents that explained the geopolitical situation, the ethnic tensions within Lebanon, the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the dangers expected for northern Israel residents, and the fact that a moment after we withdraw (and we all forgot how many times we heard that,) Syria would take over Lebanon.


All of it was very convincing, with the exception of one fact: We really had no reason to be there.


It is possible that the withdrawal should have been undertaken in a different manner, and I too – just like many others – didn’t like the nighttime rush to get out, yet every tired reservist who performed guard duty there knew the truth that the leaders refused to recognize. The reservist was right, while the leaders were wrong. It wasn’t that complicated.


Foreign currency example

Similar processes occurred in each and every area of our life here. It may sound strange today, yet for dozens of years Israelis were not allowed to possess foreign currency, for fear that our foreign currency reserves would be eliminated that way.


I still remember how before traveling overseas we needed to submit a request to the Treasury, receive a special permit, and be granted a one-time authorization to withdraw up to $500. Every time someone claimed this was an absurd move, dozens of experts would speak up and prove, using hundreds of graphs and documents, that a change would be complicated and must not be undertaken, or else Israel’s economy would collapse.


Yet then a new government took office, and the finance minister announced one day that from now on every citizen can hold as much foreign currency as he or she wishes. And what happened because of this? In fact, nothing. In fact, while I’m writing this, Israel’s foreign currency reserves are the largest in its history. As it turned out, it wasn’t too complicated either.


I could go on with such examples. Our archives are giant cemeteries of warnings and scare-mongering repeating the same message: “This is a complex problem.” Or in other words: Ignore what appears right to you and disregard common sense; just believe us, we know better, and we sure know how complicated it is.


Yet then came reality and proved that what looked logical was in fact logical. The disengagement was painful and scarred an entire generation, yet it wasn’t complicated; absorbing mass Russian immigration was expensive, but not complicated.


However, we must of course distinguish between simplicity and superficiality.


Superficiality is to claim that there is no problem withdrawing from the territories (or staying there,) recruiting the haredim to the IDF (or sending them to work,) forcing the core curriculum on all Israeli schools (or giving up on the next generation,) enforcing construction laws vis-à-vis the Bedouin in the Negev (or surrendering to them,) or building a fence that would prevent infiltration in the south (or meeting the infiltrators in Tel Aviv and offering them a shelter).


These are all superficial statements, because those are certainly problems. We are talking about the most sensitive and dramatic issues of our lives, and this is never easy.  


Buridan’s Ass

Yet simplicity is about the ability to carry all of this out nonetheless. Face up to a real problem and say: “I know this is difficult, yet this is the right thing to do.” And then do it.


Decisions are never easy. If they were easy, they wouldn’t be called decisions. An old friend of mine, an economist by trade, once explained to me that the statistical definition of “dilemma” is 49.9% in favor and 50.1% against. If the gap is greater, there is no dilemma, because the answer is clear.


In an overwhelming majority of the cases, all the people who establish committees and write reports don’t embark on these activities because they deal with a complicated issue, but rather, in order to make the issue complicated. Every time someone tells you that “it’s complex,” you can assume that he is trying to evade the need to decide or say something clear.


In many cases, these people also look good while they do it: Men wearing dark suits with red neckties, their faces frozen in honor of the occasion, who know how to present complex data in a complex way while convincing us the issue better be left in their hands, because only they know how to resolve the complexity they created for us.


In the 14th century, a paradox known as Buridan’s Ass gained popularity. It went something like this: You take a hungry donkey, and place two identical piles of food on each side of it, at equal distance from the donkey. As the donkey cannot decide which pile to walk over to first, there is only one rational solution to his problem – starving to death.


I am not about to insult your intelligence and make the obvious comparison to the current diplomatic process. It would be sufficient for me to note that the Buridan’s Ass problem was very popular among philosophers, until Baruch Spinoza attacked it using one clear sentence: The problem is not relevant to human beings, because no human being would be that stupid.


But is that really so?






פרסום ראשון: 10.08.10, 12:19
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