Israel's Newfound Oil Is Distracting Netanyahu

Upon his return to power, Netanyahu embarked on manifesting this vision. At the Presidential Conference in October 2009, he posed a challenge - to do away with global dependence on oil.

Benjamin Netanyahu had a vision: to free the world of dependence on oil. He believed that this was the best way to improve Israel's strategic situation. In a world without oil, the Arabs would lose their political influence and the Iranians would be unable to fund Hezbollah and Hamas. According to the magic vision of the leader of the right, in a world without oil no one would be interested in the Palestinians, and the West would stop pestering Israel with demands that it withdraw from the territories.

Upon his return to power, Netanyahu embarked on manifesting this vision. At the Presidential Conference in October 2009, he posed a challenge - to do away with global dependence on oil.

"I know that it seems impossible, but I'm telling you that it's possible," the prime minister promised. "The primary and most important issue for Israel - from a geopolitical point of view, from a security point of view, from an environmental point of view, as far as securing the future is concerned, in terms of altering the global priorities - is finding an alternative to oil."

He said it and then acted upon it: The day after the conference, Netanyahu assigned Prof. Eugene Kandel, the head of the National Economic Council, the task of transforming Israel into the leading developer of alternatives to oil. Kandel set up a committee comprised of senior officials and scientists, and embarked on finding a miraculous solution that would crush the hold of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and Russia on the global energy market.

Oil controls transportation, and so the committee focused on improving the powering of vehicles with fuel produced form coal and plants, or on electric engines (whose energy is produced from various sources ). The panel members also studied the history of developing oil alternatives and discovered that the field suffers from shortness of breath. Every time the prices of fuel went up, funds were invested in finding alternatives. When the prices dropped again, the projects were neglected.

That will not happen to us, the committee promised; Israel has a serious interest in lessening global dependency on oil. And unlike countries in the West, we do not have a powerful energy industry that will try to retain the status quo.

Only a few companies in Israel are busy developing oil alternatives, if we exclude Better Place's electric car project, but the committee promised that there was nothing to worry about. The Israeli mind had proven itself in high-tech, in the defense industry and in agriculture, and with the right sort of government guidance and contributions from the Jewish Diaspora, it will succeed in beating the oil producers too. Like every bureaucratic body, the Kandel Committee also followed Parkinson's Law: Its members solved the world's problems, but found it difficult to determine which ministry would control the project - National Infrastructure or Industry, Trade and Labor.

The committee filed a report in July 2010, and in September Netanyahu brought the conclusions for government approval. Adding to the drama, he invited Military Intelligence director Amos Yadlin to the discussion, who told the ministers about oil's dangers for Israel.

Kandel meanwhile found a solution to the disagreement over the control of the project, right out of the Parkinson's Law files: increase his own empire. He proposed setting up a staff in the Prime Minister's Office, with more personnel and an annual budget of NIS 146 million. The ministers were not impressed, and the discussions continued into October without a decision being made, and with Netanyahu "considering defining the program as a national project."

In the meantime, there has been a surprising twist to the plot. While the committee is sitting around thinking, the citizens of Israel have learned about the enormous natural gas deposits discovered offshore in the Leviathan field. Overnight, Israel was transformed into the new Saudi Arabia, and the dreams of oil alternatives were replaced by fantasies of gas royalties. National interest was overturned in one fell swoop: So long as energy prices increase, more money will enter the state coffers.

And the enemies have changed, too. Instead of trying to bring down the economy of Iran, Netanyahu is fighting businessman Yitzhak Tshuva over the split in the booty from the drilling in the Mediterranean Sea.

In bringing the conclusions of the Sheshinsky Committee before the cabinet for approval - which divided the gas money between the state and the entrepreneurs - Netanyahu did not even mention his vision of doing away with oil dependency. He promised the future royalties to the largest budget consumers - defense and education - and not "the primary and most important issue" of developing alternative energy.

The beautiful vision evaporated in the bureaucratic grinders, and the prime minister fell into the very trap against which he had warned. When money flows from the ocean floor, who has time to think about correcting the world?