Israel the Oil Power?

Oil Shale

The dependency of Western economies on oil imports has shaped foreign policy considerations in the Middle East for decades and has, in turn, deeply influenced the balance of power across the region. With an estimated three quarters of total conventional oil reserves still to be found in the Middle East, one might conclude that policy alternatives will remain limited when it comes to preserving energy security. Meanwhile, the toppling of regimes in the Maghreb has yet again proven to policy makers that relying on this particular region for oil might not be the safest bet. However, Israel might be about to revolutionize the global energy sector.

In late 2010, the World Energy Council estimated that Israel had reserves of up to 4 billion barrels of oil shale. More recently, the ‘Israel Energy Initiative’ estimated that Israel is actually sitting on reserves of 250 billion barrels (to put this number in perspective, Saudi Arabia’s reserves mount up to 260 billion barrels of conventional oil). If proven, this would make Israel home to the third largest oil shale deposits after the United States and China. So how come this story is not making the headlines?

Meet Israel’s New West Bank

People from the Negev protest against expropriation of land. Image: Frederik Malm/flickr

With global newspaper headlines brimming with Israeli and Iranian saber-rattling, this could be an opportune moment to implement controversial domestic policies, safely beyond the spotlight of the public eye. Alas, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, is doing just that with a new bill on the ’Regulation of the Bedouin settlement in the Negev’. The bill is based on the ‘Prawer Plan’, which was approved by the cabinet in September last year. Once in effect, an overwhelming majority of the residents of the Negev desert’s unrecognized villages would be relocated and roughly two-thirds of the land would be confiscated by the Israeli government.

Sadly, the bill is just the tip of the iceberg and joins the ranks of a series of discriminatory measures implemented by the Israeli government over decades, all designed to gradually marginalize the already underprivileged Bedouin minority. The Bedouin-Arabs are an indigenous people that lived on Palestinian land long before the Israeli state came into existence. The main issue, at present, is that the government does not recognize Bedouin villages, let alone Bedouin land-ownership rights. Today, the almost 200,000 Bedouin-Arabs are among the most disadvantaged of Israeli citizens. As the government considers the Bedouin “spread” illegal, it refuses to deliver basic services such as running water, electricity, roads, proper education, and health and welfare services.

As recently as July 2010, Israeli forces demolished the homes of Bedouin citizens in the village of Al-Araqib in the southern Negev, destroying houses, olive groves and other structures, leaving more than 300 people homeless. The demolition followed shortly after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments about the Negev region being at risk of losing its Jewish majority. Bedouin-Arabs have the highest birth rates in the country and are thus viewed as a demographic threat to the Jewish population. Fifty years ago now, David Ben-Gurion suggsted that the Bedouin be herded into the north of the desert “in order not to disturb development plans” — and indeed, the Negev is the next Israeli frontier. It accounts for more than half of the country’s land but remains sparsely populated, making it an ideal site for new settlements that could accommodate the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants the government is expecting in the coming years.

On the condition of renouncing claims to their ancestral land, the government offers its Bedouin citizens the right to resettle in seven existing government-planned townships. These cities, which were created during the 1990’s, were designed to relocate the rural population to urban communities. Today, those townships are among the eight poorest communities in Israel, facing high unemployment and lacking crucial infrastructure. Meanwhile, Jewish settlements built on former Bedouin land are generously subsidized by the government. What this means is that the Israeli government is refusing to provide all of its citizens with equal rights and opportunities.  Now that’s a story worthy of the headlines.

The Elephant in the Brotherhood’s Living Room

The Elephant in the Room, Image: David Blackwell/flickr

Ongoing protests in Cairo have cast a shadow on the inauguration of Egypt’s first democratically elected Parliament, making it clear that the country is still merely at the threshold of achieving a successful transition to democracy. Hovering above the heads of many protesters remains the fear of military rulers not willing to step down from the political arena, and given the military’s core interests, this apprehension would not appear misplaced. Meanwhile, the question of how the Muslim Brotherhood will actually grapple with the burden of government responsibility once in power is predominantly worrisome to liberal Western governments and to Israel in particular.

Considering the Brotherhood’s long history of being in opposition and primarily functioning outside the political realm, this is a highly relevant question. Starting in the 1920’s as a social movement, the organization has built up its strong popular base mainly by avoiding direct government confrontation and providing efficient social services to Egyptian citizens at the margins of a repressive government. Having originally operated in the shadows of Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt regime, the Brotherhood’s grass roots approach has now borne fruit in the form of votes at the ballot, and the people are skeptically waiting to be served. The ever-evolving nature of the Brotherhood seems to be standing at the crossroads once again, having to compromise between pragmatism and ideology, a choice that is likely to determine Egypt’s future at least in the short term.

Israel Wants the Dowry – But Not the Bride

Protests in Tel Aviv last fall
Protests in Tel Aviv last fall. Photo: Or Hiltch/flickr

Voices critical of Israel’s role in the Middle East sometimes argue that its occupation of the West Bank, much of the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip is imperialist in nature.  Such criticism draws a parallel with 19th and 20th century European imperialism, casting the Palestinians as the indigenous inhabitants of the region and the Israelis as a hostile ‘foreign’ power.  Another implication of this characterization, however, is that the occupation is economically motivated, or is best understood in economic terms. Today, to complement our discussion of ‘Economics, Politics and War’ last week, we examine some aspects of the political economy of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Specifically (and with the help of Miriam Qamar’s recent essay “Thoughts on the Dialectics of Revolution and Palestinian Nationalism”), we do so through a Marxist lens.

A Specter is Haunting Western Policy-Makers

Photo: Steve Paulo/flickr

Much to the chagrin of Western governments, Egypt’s first elections since the overthrow of Mubarak’s regime in February are unlikely to yield a secular democratic government. Receiving an estimated 65 percent of total votes, Islamist parties consolidated their gains in Egypt’s second round of multistage parliamentary elections held on December 14-15, achieving yet another landslide victory that is unlikely to be reversed in the third and last round of voting in January. Although not fully surprising, the marginalization of liberal and secular forces at the ballots has caused notable uncertainty among Western states when it comes to formulating foreign policy options towards Egypt and the Middle East more generally.

Governments in both Europe and the US have been understandably reluctant to voice premature concessions in the face of a probable coalition government dominated by Islamist parties. To be sure, even though the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Nour Party, the political wing of the Salafi movement, do not share a fully congruent ideology, they are both in favor of implementing Sharia law. The dilemma is obvious even despite the political outcome in Egypt. What remains is great ambiguity in how political Islam would actually be implemented once the relevant factions seize power, and whether this would be compatible with the stipulations the revolution has fought for and, moreover, Western ideals of self-determination and human rights.