Saturday, June 9, 2007

Setting Israel's Oil Wells Alight

I was only six during the first Gulf War, so my memories of the event are spotty; however, I do remember the iconic images of Kuwait's oil fields burning, spewing acrid black smoke into the air and blotting out the Middle Eastern sun. Those images have since been burned into the public consciousness, symbols of wealth and opportunity evaporating in the face of ugly and senseless conflict.

I bring them up because of a recent Tom Friedman op-ed about "Israel's oil wells." No, the Jewish state hasn't all of a sudden discovered black gold under the sands of the Negev. Rather, Friedman refers to the astonishing, admirable amount of intellectual capital that Israel has managed to build among its populace. The engineers, software designers and other thinkers that Israel has nurtured with its first-class education system have poised the nation to be a leader in the 21st century global economy. This is all the more reason that Israel must, for the love of all that is sacred, find a way to solve the festering conflict with its Palestinian neighbors.

Israel's economic, intellectual and cultural accomplishments have indeed been staggering (Friedman notes that Israel is second only to the United States in companies listed on the NASDAQ), and Israelis deserve all the credit in the world for building a society so uniquely poised to make positive contributions to human progress. Endemic conflict, though, has the potential to render such achievements moot.

Israelis have, over the last twenty years, managed to free themselves from the kinds of conventional existential threats that they faced in the early decades of the state's existence. They no longer stare down the barrels of Syrian and Egyptian tanks (at least not those that could attack with any credibility). As many have pointed out, Israel's current security threats (with the notable exception of Iran) are more amorphous, coming in the form of glorified gangs long on hatred but short on resources. It is tempting to think that, with the right mix of security measures, Israel can simply put these threats out of mind. Such thinking is flawed.

Time and odds will, eventually, catch up with Israel absent a real peace settlement. Hard as the West might try to stop them, weapons of mass destruction continue to proliferate, and it will only be so long before some of them fall into the hands of Hamas or Hezbollah or Islamic Jihad or any of the myriad bands of thugs that harass Israel's borders and plague her cities. As long as such organizations can draw legitimacy from Israeli occupation, they will be conduits through which an existential threat can manifest itself. There is also some truth to the notion that the democratic legitimacy of the Israeli state is undermined by its creeping colonization of the West Bank. There is a fundamental tension between working to guarantee the human rights of one group while suppressing those of another. This tension has been experienced by Britain in Ireland (and India, and Burma and...), France in Algeria, the United States in its own south, Japan in Korea and in countless other countries that have tried to walk the tightrope between democracy and empire (ancient Rome and Athens provide the archetypal examples). For the sake of every Israeli citizen, not to mention every Palestinian, I hope that the Israeli government can summon the courage to confront its own citizens, dismantle its settlements, and make the hard choices necessary to forge a lasting peace. If it cannot, Israel's oil wells may well go the same way as Kuwait's: up in smoke.

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