What Israelis Need to Learn About Natural Gas and Public Property

The concept of a resource that belongs to the public and is equally shared by everyone simply doesn't exist here. For us Israelis, money buys everything.

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A growing share of Israel's electricity is produced from natural gas from the Tamar gas field off the Mediterranean coast. Credit: Albatross Aerial Perspective

When natural gas was found in the Tamar and Leviathan wells, Israelis didn’t celebrate in the streets. They didn’t feel as if they had found gas, or that the gas that had been found belonged to them. Whether they felt that the state had found gas or that an American corporation and a local tycoon had found gas – they didn’t regard that gas as their property or something they owned, with everything such ownership entailed in terms of future profits. They didn’t think that they had become trillionaires overnight. Anyway, the whole idea of Israelis celebrating in the streets with the declaration that gas had been found at Tamar and Leviathan sounds unreal. Gas exploration partner Yitzhak Tshuva opened a bottle of champagne, of course. But the thought that Israel’s citizens had a reason to celebrate is divorced from the reality in which we live.

And it’s not because it’s terribly difficult to explain what it means to find natural gas beneath the sea. True, most Israelis are not well versed in geology and energy but they understand very well, for example, what it means to find oil. Every schoolchild understands what it means to find oil. It’s very easy to explain to them that finding gas is just like finding oil.

In the early 1970s, when Arab oil controlled the world, we bewailed the fact that in contrast to the rest of the countries in the Middle East here we had no oil. We understood the power of oil very well. And everyone understands the power of gas. And they understand what it means to get rich and why they should be happy when they get rich overnight and how that can change their fate.

That’s why people buy lottery tickets and wait for Erella, the woman who phones the winners on the state lottery commercials, to call them, too. They rejoice when she calls. People are not stupid.

But they have no idea about anything having to do with public property, no clue about a resource that belongs to the entire public and is supposed to be shared equally by everyone. That is a concept that simply doesn’t exist here. There is an entity called “the state,” and it owns a lot of property, including natural resources and various other resources within its borders. And there are of course private individuals, like them, who buy all kinds of things, from cottage cheese to apartments, which belong to them because they bought them with the money they earned with their work. And there are also very wealthy private individuals, like Yitzhak Tshuva, who buy gas fields. And he can sell them this gas and when they buy it with money, the miniscule part that they bought will be theirs. Just like they buy electricity. Who do they buy it from? The Israel Electric Corporation. Who does the electricity belong to? The Israel Electric Corporation. Except for the electricity in my house. The electricity in my house is mine, because I paid for it.

Take an example of public property in Israel: Channel 1 is a public television channel. Do people feel that Channel 1 belongs to them? This is what they know: Money buys everything. It buys a beach. It buys land in the city that instead of becoming a public park becomes a prestigious private housing project. And money is a sparse resource when it is allocated unequally, like in “Survival” or “The Amazing Race.” There’s competition. The money isn’t divided up among all the contestants. Most get nothing and one gets it all. That’s what they see on TV every night. That’s the world. That’s how it works.

The idea that gas belongs to the public is revolutionary. A new paradigm. It’s like telling sailors a thousand years ago that the earth revolves around the sun. It’s just, very simply, gibberish.