I moderated a conversation last night between two book authors whose books were published fairly recently by the Publishing House for which I work as head of non-fiction. The host was Beit Avi Chai in Jerusalem, the crowd surprised and showed up, disregarding the rockets (why are you surprised, one of them asked me, aren't you tired of hearing the endless chatter of the talking heads on TV? – I admitted that I am), the topic was picked many months ago but was markedly timely: Decisions, Decisions. We aimed to talk about proper approach to decision making on both the personal and the national levels.
Two very smart authors made this conversation quite fascinating. Prof. Eyal Winter, head of the Center for the Study of Rationality at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, just recently published his book Rational Thoughts (Hebrew, Dvir 2012), and Doron Avital, an MK, a scholar, a warrior (Kadima Party, PhD from Columbia, commander of special force Sayeret Matkal respectively) published, not long ago, his book Logic in Action (Hebrew, Dvir, 2012). The books have some things in common, among them the tendency to defy reliance on strict rules and manuals for actions. Successful action, as Avital explains in his book, can't be simply defined as the ability of the executers to follow their instructions to the last detail. Planning, in Avital's book, is the first step of an operation that keeps changing until it ends – not a phase in which a manual is constructed, with which all forces have to comply.
Such books become handy when the decision on everybody's mind is whether the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas should have been agreed to. Winter, as he was speaking yesterday about negotiations, explained that being somewhat (but not overly) angry when talking to the enemy – rather then totally cool and rational – is in fact a better strategy for achieving one's goals. Anger makes the mind sharper, and helps crystallizes one's objectives, he explained. A consoling thought for those unable or unwilling to keep their emotions totally in check as they weigh the ups and downs of the possible cease fire.
What lessons did they offer?
1. To limit the number of decision-makers. Winter explained that larger groups – such as the so-called group of nine – tend to complicate processes of decisions. Smaller groups – such as the triumvirate of PM Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Lieberman - are better in such cases (they are also better than leaving the decision to one person).
2. To make a decision that isn't based on preconceived ideas. Both authors spoke in some length about the moment of "singularity" (when the hand is in the glove, as Avital phrased it), during which the mind crystallizes and the options become clear. An analogy was made to a tennis player choosing to use a backhand or a forehand stroke. If the decision is made before the ball is on the way, it might not be the right one; if it is made when the ball has already arrived, it is probably too late for the decision. Likewise, leaders should make up their minds at exactly the right time, when the options open to them are clear.
3. Winter made some more comments about Iran, but ones that can also serve Israel in other cases. You can see what Winter thinks about Iran here. It is that we should be careful not to make our decisions on crucial matters based on "the desire to maintain the status quo and the safe routine of our lives, the difficulty of taking responsibility for crucial actions, and the natural tendency to avoid risks".
4. Avital emphasized the need to consider the right point of reference when decisions are made. In the current case of Gaza, this means not reaching a decision based on conceptions stemmng from previous Gaza operations, such as the 2008 Cast Lead. In 2008, the Middle East was different, Egypt was different, Turkey was different, Syria was different. In the current environment, when Israel, for the first time, launches a large-scale operation in the post-Arab awakening world, there is good reason to test the waters before plunging in. Avital, a member of the opposition, in fact credited Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman for being cautious and not rushing into a ground operation.
5. Both authors talked a lot about trade-offs: a decision is never perfect and never risk-free. And they can never be reached in a vacuum – risk should be compared to risk, decisions to alternative decisions, options to other options. Halting the operation now might not be a good idea, but what we have to ask ourselves is whether there's better idea available – if not, a bad idea is preferable to a terrible idea.
So – should Israel have agreed to a cease-fire? Should it have launched the ground operation? One can't have an answer unless one has the details of the agreement, and the full picture of diplomatic pressures and military complications. I know - this makes public opinion suddenly seem almost irrelevant. It is not - public opinion is one of the components a leader has to throw into the mix as the singular moment of decision arrives.