Black Swan Events

What is a “Black Swan Event” and why is it so relevant to Israel and the Middle East?  Dan Diker, Fellow and Project Director, Counter Political Warfare, at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former Secretary General  of the World Jewish Congress, explained at Netanya AACI that a “Black Swan” event is an unexpected and unpredictable occurrence with major, even dramatic, implications that has characterized the modern history of the Middle East.

The phrase “Black Swan event” was first coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2001 book entitled “Fooled by Randomness,” and followed by his 2007 New York Times best-seller “The Black Swan, the Impact of the Highly Improbable.   The metaphor of the Black Swan  refers to the rarity of that species of bird, that were not known to exist, until they were discovered by Willem de Vlamingh a Dutch explorer. in Western Australia in 1697. Previously White Swans had been assumed to be the only ones in existence.  The metaphor not only means that an event is rare and unexpected, but that after a Black Swan event people tend  to rationalize its occurrence. Black Swan events in recent history include the 9/11 attack on the World Trade center, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and closer to home, the implosion of many Sunni Arab states, Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Israel, Israel’s discovery of natural gas and its new role as a regional energy power.

As I’ve mentioned, the Black Swan metaphor has an even older history in the Middle East.  I recall former Head of Israeli Intelligence, Yehoshafat Harkabi saying in a lecture in the 1970’s that “anyone can have his or her ‘solution’ to the Middle East (Arab-Israeli) conflict, but such conflicts are usually resolved in time by events that are unpredictable and unexpected.”  The classic example is Pres. Sadat of Egypt going to Jerusalem in 1977.  Of all the thousands of experts in this area, not one predicted this, and in fact the State Department advised the then-President that it could not happen.  But, they were all wrong.  After the event all sorts of reasons and explanations were advanced for why he did this, out of political necessity following the defeat of Egypt in the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  But, it was really a Black Swan Event (that I have referred to before, e.g. see IsBlog Dec 24, 2012).

Dan Diker used this metaphor effectively in pointing out current Black Swan events, such as the discovery of large gas fields off the Israeli coast, transforming Israel into a net exporter of natural gas, the recent cutting of ties by the main Sunni States with Qatar and PM Netanyahu visiting East And West Africa and meeting leaders of States that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

Dan’s main topic was “Israel’s battle against BDS and political warfare,” and he effectively used the concept of Black Swan Events to point out that the old, tired, anti-Semitic canards of the BDS movement, that Israel is a “colonialist,” “imperialist,” “apartheid” state that has no legitimacy, are not only untrue, but that are confounded by recent events, such as the Islamic terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere, the political undermining of  the EU by Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA and perhaps most unpredicted of all, the wholesale meltdown of the Arab Middle East resulting in the failure of such States as Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.  Now the Sunni States are seeking an accommodation with Israel.  It may be due to the twin threats of IS and Iran, but that truly is a Black Swan Event.