Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Israel's Strategic Vulnerability and the First Law of Petro-Politics

The land you are entering is not like the land of Egypt, where you planted seeds and irrigated it by food as in a vegetable garden. The land…is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven.
(Devarim 11: 10-12)

Similar to that joke about God's sense of humor being apparent by Him leading the Jews through the desert for 40 years before bringing them to the only place in the region without oil, the above verses from last week's Torah portion touch on the irony of Israel's geography and its contemporary meaning.

We may have stunning scenery, but in contrast to its neighbors, Israel isn’t a place full of natural resources. As the British Chief Rabbi writes, "Israel is by its very nature a vulnerable place, a strategic location at the meeting point of three continents, always at the mercy of surrounding empires but never the basis of an empire itself."

Our fate, it seems, is always to be outnumbered, vulnerable and under threat.

Those living in the country need no reminders of this. On Sunday a grad rocket fell on Ashkelon. On Tuesday, rockets were fired at Eilat. Yesterday meanwhile, Israeli soldiers were attacked on the northern border.

But maybe this situation is actually our strength.

Maybe its davka our lack of natural resources that has caused Israelis to rely on their own courage and ingenuity. In their very readable book Start-Up Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer describe this exact process – how Israel's adversity-driven culture has facilitated its creative energetic spark.

But what the verses in Devarim particularly reminded me of is a concept coined by Tom Friedman, called the First Law of Petro-politics.

Friedman's Petro-politics law very simple – the greater a country's natural resources, the lower its levels of civil freedoms. As Friedman puts it “as the pace of freedom declines, the price of oil goes up; as the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom increases.”

It seems counterintuitive. Countries should benefit from having natural resources. But many suffer from what the Economist calls the 'Curse of Oil' or the 'paradox of plenty.' Friedman explains that high oil prices often create tyrannical and backward regimes, precisely because their leaders (think Iran, Venezuela or Russia) extract oil rather than constructing a society which extracts entrepreneurship and creativity from its people.

Those states like Israel, who dont have oil wells to drill, are forced to drill their own people's intellect and imagination. (as an aside, Friedman notes that the first Arab Gulf state to hold a free and fair election, in which women could run and vote, was Bahrain, which happens to be the first Arab Gulf state expected to run out of oil.)

So as our weekly portions continues to describe the Jewish people's journey towards the promised land, and as current events continue to remind us of our geo-strategic reality, lets remember that certain aspects of our 'vulnerability' should be celebrated.

Lets just hope that the recently discovered gas fields off Israel's coast don’t change any of this.

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