Monsters of the Mediterranean

With the discovery of the gas fields, Israel could be in for a windfall that will indelibly change the local economy − and the peace process.

Remember the old joke about how Moses took a wrong turn in the Sinai desert and instead of bringing us to the promised land of oil-rich Arabia, we got stuck in the resource-less province of Canaan? And of course the Zionist chestnut about how the Arabs may have all the oil, but we in Israel have the infinite wealth of the Jewish mind?

Well that may all be about to change now that the Tamar and Leviathan offshore gas fields have been found to be more abundant than anyone’s wildest dreams. If the politicians are brave enough to face down the energy tycoons and implement the Sheshinski Committee’s report, Israel could well be in for a mammoth windfall in less than a decade that will change the parameters of the local economy forever.

Of course, there are numerous foreseeable events that could wipe out this newfound largess. A couple of wars, or the need to rebuild the country after the practically inevitable, would be enough to consume all the profits and more. And, of course, there are so many ways our shortsighted leadership could screw it all up as well. Still, it’s not too early to begin wondering how an Israel that could rely on a steady income from natural gas reserves would be different from the nation that has developed over the last 62 years.

Sefi Rachlevsky, the self-appointed prophet of doom, always quick to see Israel’s descent into the hellfires of theocracy, was quick off the mark with a piece on these pages two days ago in which he predicted how the new gas riches could encourage Israel’s isolationist anti-peace elements and hasten our transformation into a Jewish version of Saudi Arabia or Iran. The danger of such a scenario is certainly present. And as Rachlevsky presciently pointed out, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only last week tried to divert attention from his dismal failure in pushing forward the peace process by highlighting how his Israel is becoming an economic powerhouse.

I would add another nightmarish outcome. This newfound affluence could actually reverse the trend toward ultra-religiosity in Israel, which as it is isn’t that definite, and we may still go down the isolationist path. We could become a 21st-century version of South Africa: white, secular, well-educated, confident that our resources and superior know-how will enable us to continue perpetuating a segregationist policy and thumb our noses at the disapproving international community.

The typical political behavior of Israeli voters provides ample proof that such a scenario is possible. Last week, a senior officer in the Home Front Command told me that, while surveys show Israelis are very aware of the threat of a nonconventional attack on their cities, only 20 percent of them have so far availed themselves of the opportunity to obtain new gas masks for their families free of charge. For some unknown reason, recognition of the threat has not motivated them to actually do something about it. This attitude mirrors their political tendencies.

For over a decade, countless surveys have shown that two thirds of Israelis favor a two-state solution, but somehow that has not translated into an overwhelming electoral victory for the parties advocating an end to the occupation. Israel is steadily becoming more affluent and the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign has been suppressed. In 2009 and 2010, not even one suicide bombing was carried out − every nascent attempt was nipped in the bud thanks to the improved capabilities of the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service, as well as growing cooperation with the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.

As growing numbers of Israelis join the burgeoning middle class, there is less and less inclination to risk it all, especially as in the public mind the Oslo Accords now seem like a colossal folly. The daily injustices inherent to the subjugation of another nation are taking place just a short drive down the road, but as far as 90 percent of Israelis are concerned, they could be happening on another continent. Will greater wealth help them to remove their blinders, or will it just be added incentive for them to burrow down deeper into their comfortable bunkers?

Rich and resourceful rogues

The challenge here for the left wing and for at least part of the centrist camp is huge. Will they be able to persuade the public to adopt a more moral approach from Israel’s perceived position of strength? Today they can raise the fear of increasing international illegitimacy as a reason for solving our diplomatic impasse, but we know that the international community rarely exerts itself to punish rich and resourceful rogues.

Even the threat of the American administration withholding its substantial annual aid will lose its potency. Many will be quick to persuade themselves that once we are a major purveyor of valuable gas, the world will find it easier to overlook our excesses. They may even prove to be right.

The Diaspora’s influence, which is already waning, will be diminished even further, once Israel has less need for their philanthropy. The J Street phenomena has been growing over the last year, with more Jewish leaders in the United States and Europe prepared to speak out against Israel’s current policies, but who will listen to them? Even within their own communities, members will become more interested in the new economic opportunities in Israel than in the future of the peace process.

But not all is lost. The events surrounding the natural gas findings show that there is still hope for social action. The success of the campaign which is calling for a much greater portion of the energy earnings to be used for the nation’s benefit, facing down the well-funded gas tycoons lobby and capturing the public’s imagination lays the foundations for a wider movement.

The next step must involve presenting detailed plans to the public on how the new funds will enable major improvements in the health, education and social security sectors and close the gaps in our society between Jews and Arabs. Only if the supporters of peace show themselves to be true champions of social equality as well, can they hope to persuade Israelis to take advantage of their improved circumstances and transform Israel into a just nation living at peace with its neighbors.