Terrorists' behavior must go unrewarded

April 11, 2002|By Irwin J. Mansdorf

RA'ANANA, Israel - It's really simple psychology.

Reward a behavior, and you'll see more of it. Don't reward it, and it'll eventually disappear. Reinforce the wrong behavior, and you create a mess.

Nowhere are these simple rules more apparent or applicable than in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of the last few decades. And in the application of psychology, the Palestinians, until now, have had the upper hand.

View the Middle East as a psychological conflict, and the lines are fairly well drawn.

On one side are the Israelis, who have something that the other side - the Palestinians - want. The Palestinians recognize this and do what they need to do in order to get what they want from the Israelis. Simple enough.

When the conflict began more than 50 years ago, Arab behavior was low on psychology but high on brutishness.

Like the class bully, the Arabs reasoned that force and bravado would get them what they wanted. By pushing, threatening, hitting and fighting, the goal was to force the people they perceived as the weaker party out of the neighborhood.

After losing one, two, three wars, some in the Arab world began to realize that tactics needed to change. The change didn't come quickly. In fact, after their overwhelming defeat by Israel in 1967, the Arab response was "no" to peace, "no" to negotiation and "no" to recognition. After another couple of wars, the Arabs were even further from the goals they set in 1948.

Along came Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Instead of war, he offered peace. His words were backed by deeds, and Israel relinquished all the land that Egypt claimed. Fifteen years later, Jordan, under the leadership of King Hussein, did the same and received disputed land back from Israel.

The principle seemed rather simple: I'll give you what you want and you'll give me what I want. In the case of Egypt, Jordan and Israel, it worked for all involved.

A clear cause-and-effect relationship was established. Israel will give up land in return for peace with its neighbors. The Palestinians, who used terror for years, decided to adopt the Egyptian strategy and engaged Israelis in discussions along the lines of "Give me a Palestinian state and I'll give you peace and security."

Again, the rules of psychology worked. Israel, having experienced what it perceived as a successful "land for peace" deal with Egypt, was ready to try another successful application of the same principle. And so were born the Oslo accords in 1993.

But even as the Palestinian leadership talked peace, they incited their population and repeatedly violated the accords they signed. Despite the consistent ignoring of commitments, the peace process went on and the Palestinians were reinforced for the wrong behavior.

Today, after nearly two years of unrelenting terror and repeated violations of the Oslo accords, most Israelis, not to speak of Europeans and Americans, are resigned to the realization of the Palestinian goal of an independent state. The logical conclusion? Terror works.

While Israel busies itself with eradicating terrorists and those that sponsor them, the world is divided on how to react. The Arab world cries "foul" and is backed by the European Community, which, in its shortsightedness, is eager to appease both Arab governments and the Muslim populations in their countries. The United States, acting both as a military and moral superpower, was alone in supporting the validity and legality of the Israeli actions.

With both Israel and the United States, the goal is clear: zero tolerance for terror. For both, now is the chance to set the tone for the battle in which the civilized world is engaged.

Political discussions of any type while terror continues will only reinforce the use of violence and terror as a means to attain political goals. Allow perceived injustices to be resolved in this manner, and a Pandora's box of anarchy and mayhem will be opened.

In order to defeat terror politically, it must first be utterly defeated militarily. It's "first win, then talk," not the other way around.

And that's just simple psychology.

Irwin J. Mansdorf, a psychologist living in Israel, is a consultant on dealing with the effects of terror for the Israeli city of Hadera, Israel's military and Project Liberty of the health department of New York state.

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