Commentary Magazine


Natural Gas and Israel’s Future

For decades, one of the standard jokes of the Jewish world was how it was that Moses had led the Children of Israel to what seemed to be one of the few spots in the Middle East without oil. Indeed, part of the narrative of modern Israel’s first 65 years has been its struggle to maintain its existence in the face of a siege financed by an Arab world awash in oil revenue. Its survival was a testimony to the fact that oil money is no match for Jewish brains and courage. But the story of the next 65 years of Israeli history is not likely to be the same kind of David and Goliath tale. As the opening of the Tamar natural gas reservoir in the Mediterranean off of Haifa indicates, the era of Israelis being victimized by an energy industry controlled solely by their enemies is over.

The flow of gas from the Tamar field didn’t get the attention devoted to Palestinian terrorism and slanted stories about Israeli measures of self-defense, but it may well turn out to be a turning point in the country’s history. The high-tech revolution that has galvanized the country’s economy had already made it the quintessential Start-Up Nation, as Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book termed it. The drive toward energy independence and eventually toward the status of energy exporter will only accentuate Israel’s economic strength that will make the country not only richer but also more secure.

The flow of gas and the possibility of the country also being able to develop shale oil deposits are to be celebrated as signs that Israel is, as President Obama put it last month, “not going anywhere.” But no one should be under the impression that a strong economy or even a gas export business will end the conflict with the Muslim and Arab worlds. As much as Israel’s isolation has been exacerbated by the power of Arab oil, economics does not explain the level of animus directed at it in Europe or elsewhere. A hundred Tamar fields cannot make anti-Semitism disappear.

The opening up of the Tamar field alone will supply 50 to 80 percent of Israel’s natural gas fields in the next decade. But another field, called Leviathan off the country’s northern coast, is far larger. When it is exploited, it will not just lessen Israel’s dependence on energy imports but will turn the country into an exporter. That will dramatically increase its leverage in dealing with a Europe that is in thrall to Russian, Arab and Iranian oil and gas exporters. An economically strong Israel is one that is not so easily isolated. The rise in the value of the shekel in relation to the dollar this week is not due entirely to Tamar and must be credited to low interest rates and the wise fiscal policies of the Netanyahu government. But it is yet another sign that the country that was once a basket case dependent on foreign aid from America and world Jewry in order keep its finances afloat irrespective of defense needs is on its way to becoming a major economic power.

But not even energy exports in a world desperate for more fossil fuel power will be enough to silence the slurs against Israel being an apartheid power or an oppressor.

Since even before Israel’s birth there have always been those Zionists who believed economics explained everything about the Middle East conflict. Prior to World War II, the predominant Labor Zionist movement believed the economic interests of an exploitive Arab ruling class was the only thing fueling attacks on the Jewish presence in Palestine. They thought that once the effendis were rendered obsolete by economic progress and/or socialism, the conflict would simply go away.

They were wrong. Economics may explain a lot, but resentment of the Jewish return to the land is explained by religion and nationalist ideology, not the dialectic taught by the students of Karl Marx. Even in the “flat earth” world of Thomas Friedman’s imagination in which economic development will transform the region, hatred for Jews and Israel still are the animating forces behind the effort to end Israel’s existence. Radical Islam and Palestinian Arab nationalism still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or how many concessions it makes. And that is a force that is strong enough to resist the rational impulse to end the conflict no matter how rich Israel or the Arab world get.

Nor will it change the attitudes of European elites and intellectuals who wrongly see Zionism as a vestigial remnant of the age of imperialism, something they view as the post-modern equivalent of Christianity’s doctrine of original sin.

The sorry truth is that the main factors driving attacks on Israel are a function of anti-Semitism, not economics. As Ruth Wisse rightly pointed out, Jew hatred was the most successful ideology of the 20th century as it was the tool of fascists, Nazis and Communists. That won’t change in the 21st century as Islamists continue their war on the West and the little Satan of Israel with anti-Semitism remaining as a major theme of their worldview.

This doesn’t diminish the importance of Tamar. Nor does it mean that Israel’s economic development is not one more reason to believe attempts to isolate it or even destroy it will all fail. But it does bring into focus the fact that if it is to resist those efforts it must not assume that its economic brilliance will make it any more popular than its scientific advances or the beauty of its beaches or its people.

Those who hold onto the myth that branding Israel will make it loved are still wrong. Rich or poor, what Israel needs to do is to assert the justice of its cause and to continue to push back against the idea that it hasn’t the right to defend itself against those who would end its existence. Only on the day when its neighbors as well as the rest of the international community accept, as President Obama did last month, that the Jews have returned to their ancient homeland never to leave it again, will we be able to say the conflict is truly over. 

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