Opinion: Israel’s borders are safe, but Gaza war puts its future security in peril

One of the world’s largest industries in terms of litres of printer’s ink is forecasting the future. We all want to know what risks are coming so we can prepare against the bad stuff and look forward to the good. Forecasting is difficult, and prediction is impossible.

Forecasting tools range from fortune-tellers to highly sophisticated, casino-busting analytical models. All forecasters have a probability of getting it wrong, and the best can only find indicators of the future by looking to understand the past. The idea is that history repeats itself.

In reality, history often doesn’t repeat itself but more commonly rhymes. We often see déjà vu happening all over again and take that as a guide that we will see a similar outcome as before, hoping that this time it is not too different.

History is an uncertain guide because the exact circumstances are unrepeatable. Dominant narratives flow and bifurcate like a river; they can be strong and dominant upstream but turn out to be fake, off-target or misleading as time goes on.

Alternative narratives might dominate at different times and at different strengths to inject new facts, activate dormant narratives or insert noise into our expectations. As a narrative develops, uncertainties become risks to which we can apply probabilities with increasing certainty. When we reach a point of certainty, a new dominant narrative emerges.

Some insight into the future can be found by analysing event narratives because they illustrate the power of the wisdom of the crowd. A narrative is the consolidation of assessments of future probability, some informed and others just good guesses. The resulting story firms up the chances we apply to future events, so narrative analysis helps us to peer into the future.

Hong Kong is a city of duelling narratives, but deep down we know the truth

Today’s dominant narrative is Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, and it also has an uncertain outcome. Could it be the shot heard round the world, like the one in Sarajevo that began World War I? Could a global conflagration be triggered by a battle involving neighbouring states, or will it remain a local skirmish – a playground for superpower rivalry, conducted in someone else’s territory?

We can discern the wisdom of the crowd by running keywords through Google Trends, a website that analyses the popularity of top search queries over time. The popularity of each keyword provides some indication of the current narratives and what the crowd is thinking.

The incursion into Israel by Hamas to carry out a terrorist attack on civilians was meticulously planned, with little or no forewarning. This is an example of shock news that hits the markets without any pre-narrative. Shock news is generally rare and includes earthquakes, plane crashes or terrorist arracks. They make the narrative analyst’s job easier because there is relatively little noise to distract the analysis.

The frequency of Google searches for the word “Israel” from October 6 looks like a sine curve skewed to the left. Searches soared and reached a peak on October 9, then declined. The word “Hamas” also surges over the same timescale but tails off less sharply. The initial frequency of “Gaza” trails that of Hamas, with fewer initial searches.

However, by October 14, searches for Israel had fallen by almost half from their peak while Gaza began to have more searches than Hamas. Gaza fell by about 15 per cent, but Hamas dropped by more than 50 per cent.

The narrative focus is no longer on Israel or Hamas but on Gaza and the rapidly developing humanitarian crisis. The deserved sympathy for Israel in the early days was intense, but as the media showed Israeli airstrikes bombarding residential buildings, worldwide sympathy appears to be shifting to the people of Gaza.
People search through buildings that were destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on November 1, in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Entering the third week of the conflict, the Israeli army has expanded its military assault. Photo: Getty Images / TNS
Independent observers can gather this much by reading the news, but it can also provide an insight into the future. The real worry is the scenario of an anti-Israeli alliance of Hezbollah, Hamas and forces in the West Bank combining in a concerted attack with the support of Iran, which has its own proxy war against Israel. Such opposition could spill over into a serious threat to Israel’s existence.

The same keyword searching technique can be used with the words “Hezbollah,” “West Bank” and “Iran”. Those search terms surge after October 6 and again continue to move in rough synchronicity with the ongoing events, but the search frequency is much lower compared to the previous set of terms.

They don’t seem to be a strong contributor to the ongoing narrative. This could be seen as a likely indication there will be no major attack on Israel’s other borders.

The Israeli leadership will take this as good news, but less welcoming is the narrative switch in global sympathy from Israel to Gaza resulting from the Israeli military’s bombing of civilians. This is an unfortunate reprise of the recent dominant narrative around Russia and Ukraine, whose own keyword searches are overwhelmed by those for Israel and Gaza.

The enduring narrative of the suffering of ordinary people in Gaza also suggests a potential long-term threat to Israel’s security as memories of the last month will die hard. Israeli leaders would be wise to remember the adage that “revenge is a dish best served cold”.

Dr Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment and is a veteran investment manager, writer and broadcaster, and financial expert witness

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