Time is on Israel’s side
By Lawrence Solomon, NATIONAL POST
‘We cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace,” President Barack Obama said Sunday, referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.”
President Obama has it backwards. Time is very much on Israel’s side. In 10 years, the free world’s dependence on Israel’s enemies will likely have lessened immensely and the extraordinary challenges facing Israel will likely have diminished immensely. Peace will then have a chance.
Much of the world now sides with the Palestinians and not Israel. Some do so because they believe the United Nations was wrong to establish a Jewish state on what they viewed as Arab lands after the Second World War. Some do so out of sympathy for the millions of Palestinian refugees who remain homeless decades after Israel was established. Some believe Israel has treated Palestinians badly. Some sympathize with the underdog. Some simply are anti-Semitic.
And most, I submit, hold their views in good part because they are afraid. They believe the West must reach an accommodation with an often violent Islamic world. And they know that Islamic countries have an outsized influence over world energy markets and directly affect them whenever they fill their car up at the gas station.
In the decades after the United Nations established the state of Israel, Israel was popular in the Western world, seen as a plucky little country that, against all odds, had defeated the combined armies of eight invading Arab nations. The Academy Award winning 1960 movie, Exodus, starring Paul Newman, portrayed Israel heroically, as generally did the Western press. The U.K.’s Guardian, now anti-Israel, was early on a fierce supporter. So, too, were most other European and North American media outlets. Among the most influential of writers was one Robert Kennedy, Middle East correspondent for The Boston Post and a passionate defender of Israel’s cause. His ongoing support for Israel, and his influence in liberal circles, would make him the first U.S. casualty of Arab terrorism — he was assassinated in 1968 by Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan while campaigning to be president. Kennedy had promised that, if elected, he would supply Israel with 50 fighter jets to ensure its continued survival.
The West in those first decades following Israel’s creation did not blame Israel for the many Palestinian Arabs kept in refugee camps — it blamed Israel’s Arab neighbours for refusing to take them in, unlike Israel which had welcomed the almost one million Jewish refugees who had been expelled from Muslim lands.
The West then also did not blame Israel for the Arabs’ continued belligerence against Israel, whose UN-established borders Arab nations refused to recognize. The West saw Israel as a democracy and as an idealistic member of the Socialist International; it saw the major Arab countries as backward military dictatorships, allied with the communist Soviet Union and overtly hostile to Western interests.
Israel lost its reputation as an underdog on June 5, 1967, when in six days it defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It did not lose its popularity with the public and the press, however. In 1969, when president Charles De Gaulle tried to regain France’s former influence in the Arab world by reversing France’s long-standing military support for Israel, “De Gaulle came under stinging attack for his anti-Israel policies from the once subservient French press,” Time magazine reported. “In an unprecedented demonstration of unanimous scorn, French newspaper reporters boycotted the Information Ministry’s regular Wednesday briefing in what amounted to a direct snub of the general himself.”
Israel’s loss of popularity would come four years later, after a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria known as the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel survived that war, the fourth Arab-Israeli War in 25 years, but its popularity didn’t. The Egyptian-Syrian strategy included an agreement with Saudi Arabia to use the “oil weapon” — an embargo of oil shipments to the West. This embargo, begun during the war and now known as the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, led to skyrocketing oil prices that hit Western consumers at the pump and at home — oil was then commonly used in home heating.
Popular opinion in Europe soon swung decisively against Israel. The 1979 OPEC oil crisis, which saw further dramatic price increases, deepened the West’s sense that it was dependant on Middle East oil and furthered the swing. By then, the West had other reasons, too, to feel burdened by its relationship with Israel. The Arabs of the region had a charismatic new leader — Egyptian-born Yasser Arafat — and a new identity as a people — the newly coined “Palestinians” — and a new organization to represent them — the Palestinian Liberation Organization. (Before then, the Arabs in Palestine, overwhelmingly immigrants from neighbouring Arab lands or their children, hadn’t seen themselves as a nation. As the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations told the UN General Assembly in 1947, in arguing against the creation of either a Jewish or an Arab state in Palestine, “Palestine was part of the Province of Syria… the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity.”)
Under Arafat, a motivated PLO became the world’s pre-eminent terrorist organization, hijacking planes, taking hostages and killing Westerners when its demands weren’t met (among its demands was the release of Sirhan Sirhan, whom some believe killed Kennedy on Arafat’s’s direct orders). Adding to the burden, numerous other terrorist agencies soon followed its path, among them al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and various Muslim states such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In Europe, especially, the desire to appease the Muslim world became strong. There in the past decade, and now in the United States under the Obama administration, the belief has grown that an end to turmoil throughout the Middle East, and thus the secure energy supply that Western economies need, depend on a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That belief will likely soon wane for a number of reasons. Chief among them, as I will argue next week, will be an emerging new world energy order, Israel’s pre-eminent role in that new order, and the effect on global security of that new order.
Prior to the 1973-74 OPEC Oil Crisis, Israel was the darling of the left, extolled as a feisty, altruistic country that made socialism work in a hostile neighbourhood of Arab military dictatorships and Muslim theocracies. The liberal press defended Israel against those who objected to Israel’s existence. The liberal intelligentsia — Jew and non-Jew alike — sent their youth to Israeli kibbutzes, to be inspired by this utopian model of communal life where all received the same wage, regardless of occupation.
Almost immediately after the OPEC nations quadrupled oil prices to punish the West for its support of Israel, the left turned, along with many in the center and on the right, too. Israel soon became a pariah state, while the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose airplane hijackings and other acts of terrorism against Western targets had previously drawn condemnation, became praiseworthy.
In 1974, PLO leader Yasser Arafat assumed statesman status and was invited to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York. One more year and the UN General Assembly branded Zionism as a form of racism.
Oil wasn’t the only factor in the world’s change of attitude toward Israel. In that hyper-ideological Cold War period, anti-capitalists and anti-colonialists wanted the West and its allies out of the Middle East, others wanted to appease Arab grievances to end terrorism, or they sympathized with the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states that had lost wars to Israel. But oil was decisive in causing the world to reconsider where its interests lay.
Take black African countries, most of whom had excellent relations with Israel prior to OPEC. Though Israel was itself poor when it began its aid program in 1958, 10 years after its founding, Israel became the world’s second-largest per-capita donor of foreign aid, most of it for Africa. Israelis felt pride in having helped an estimated 250,000 Africans by transferring to them technologies in which Israel excelled, such as in agricultural and water management.
But Israel’s relationship with black Africa would not survive the OPEC oil embargo because the Arabs had a persuasive case to make. “Join us in our fight against Western imperialism and colonialism by cutting off diplomatic relations with Israel,” OPEC asked black African nations. “If you do, we will supply you with cheap oil and more aid for roads and other infrastructure than the Israelis give you. And if you don’t cut off relations with Israel,” they made clear, “we will cut off your oil, just as we cut off the West.”
The black African countries, almost en masse, cut off relations with Israel and formed an Islamic-African voting bloc, buttressed with other so-called “non-aligned nations” that would vote against Israel at every turn in the United Nations. It is this voting bloc of now more than 100 nations of the 192 in the UN — known today as the “automatic majority” — that in 1975 passed the United Nations resolution branding Zionism as a form of racism, and whose members would systematically condemn Israel and almost no one else for human rights abuses: Israel has been condemned by the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission 33 times compared to zero for countries such as Iran, Zimbabwe, or even Sudan, despite its decades-long atrocities in Darfur.
The left and the African countries weren’t alone in turning on Israel — they also had allies in the oil multinationals. Nationalization by Third World countries of multinational assets had already begun by 1973, and the oil companies knew that their dealings throughout the Middle East were at risk if they were seen to be hostile to the Arab street. To head off the backlash that they faced, the oil multinationals lobbied Western governments to turn on Israel. In an ad for The New York Times, for example, Mobil Oil urged that it was “time now for the world to insist on a settlement in the Middle East” to avoid the wrath of the Arab oil states, a message it also sent to its shareholders. In concert, Exxon and other multinationals likewise argued that the West had far greater interests in a secure oil supply than in a tiny patch of oil-less land called Israel.
This anti-Israeli coalition succeeded brilliantly in rebranding Israel as a pariah state, to the satisfaction of the oil multinationals. Although their assets were in the end nationalized, the goodwill they had earned with Arab dictatorships, and their windfall from the OPEC price hikes that they helped engineer, let them maintain their status as one of the world’s most profitable industries. For others — such as black Africa — it didn’t work out so well. Not only did Arab aid fail to develop the continent — black Africans actually became poorer — but Islamic Arabs and Christian black Africans often war with each other.
Neither did the West’s turn against Israel to appease the Arab world work out well for the West, which was rewarded with a second OPEC oil crisis in 1979, the Iranian hostage taking, two Gulf Wars, a war in Afghanistan, and a major increase in terrorism against Western targets.
Neither did the Arabs’ political success in marginalizing Israel work out well for the Arab citizenry. The Arab states, despite their oil wealth, have had abysmal growth, their stunted economies sometimes faring even worse than black Africa’s. With the chaos that has come of the Arab Spring and its potential for more radical Islamic or failed states, the outlook could not be bleaker for the Middle East.
With one exception — Israel, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and one of the most advanced: Per capita it ranks No. 1 in scientific papers, high-tech startups, civilian R&D and PhDs. Especially important to the left, Israel has become hip, a gay-friendly mecca for the arts and entertainment that attracts big-name Western performers. Lonely Planet ranks Tel Aviv third among the cities of the world for its cafés, nightclubs, and music and film scenes.
Especially important to all, Israel will soon rival Saudi Arabia as the Middle East’s single-largest store of oil. This tiny patch of land called Israel, it turns out, has an immense oil patch southwest of Jerusalem, far from any disputed territory. Israel also has immense natural gas deposits off its north coast.
Once these oil and gas resources are developed, Israel will become a major exporter, freeing the West from dependency on hostile oil-exporting regimes and enabling the West to judge Israel on its merits. The West will then be at liberty to determine afresh where its interests truly lie.