Argument

Keeping the Flame Alive

Keeping the Flame Alive

Recent developments have ruined one of Golda Meir’s favorite jokes. The former Israeli prime minister was known to quip: "Know why Jews don’t like Moses? For 40 years he leads them through the desert, and then he brings them to the only place in the Middle East without oil!"

It took a bit longer than 40 years, but it turns out Moses wasn’t so meshugge after all: Israel now boasts Saudi-sized reserves of oil and gas less than 100 miles off its coast. Only a few days ago, Woodside Petroleum, Australia’s largest oil and gas company, announced an investment of $1.3 billion in Israel’s largest offshore gas field — appropriately named Leviathan.

And the biblical references don’t stop there. The news of what may well become Israel’s largest single foreign investment ever came just in time for Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday that this year runs from Dec. 8 to 16 and which celebrates the miraculous longevity of a single vessel of sacred oil for the golden menorah that stood in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple.

If successful, Woodside’s exploitation of Leviathan has the potential to transform Israel from an energy dwarf into a hydrocarbon giant, and maybe even a major exporter. Will Israel’s energy bonanza turn out to be a latter-day Hanukkah — "dedication" or "blessing" — for the beleaguered Jewish state, or will Palestine and Lebanon, which both have overlapping claims, only bring more conflict to a region in which everything from water to air is contested.

But for Israelis — even the secular sort — divine providence seems a plausible explanation for this amazing luck. Only a few years ago, Israel had to rely on Mari B, a single well in the Yam Tethys field near the city of Ashkelon, to cover 70 percent its natural gas needs. That source was projected to dry up, well, just about now.

Egypt provided the difference in the country’s natural gas requirements, under a Hosni Mubarak-era deal that the current government in Cairo, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, seems less inclined to continue. Since the start of the Egyptian revolution, militants in the Sinai Peninsula have blown up the pipeline carrying Egyptian gas into Israel (and Jordan) just over 15 times. But Israel’s dependency on outside hydrocarbons might soon be over, thanks to an amazing string of discoveries in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which stretches for 200 miles off its shores. In January 2009, an Israeli-American consortium made the world’s largest natural gas discovery for that year in the Tamar field, 50 miles west of the city of Haifa: a total extractible reserve of 8 trillion to 9 trillion cubic feet, roughly equivalent to two years’ worth of the total U.S. residential demand for natural gas. A few months later, Dalit field, off the coast of Hadera, halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, was found to contain another 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

But Israel really struck it rich in October 2010, when that same consortium discovered more than 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Leviathan: the world’s biggest natural gas find in a decade. By itself, Leviathan could provide Israel with all the natural gas it would need for the next 100 years.

On top of all that, shale oil reserves under Israel itself could total 250 billion barrels, according to a 2011 report from the London-based World Energy Council, ranking it third in the world behind China and the United States. Combined, Israel’s oil and gas reserves would be about equal to Saudi Arabia’s total energy reserves. Although the first drop of these presumed shale oil reserves has yet to be extracted, Canadian and Russian oil companies are falling over each other to offer their help in doing so.

As reversals of fortune go, this is miraculous enough to rival the original Hanukkah story.

That miracle occurred after the revolt of the Jewish rebel army the Maccabees in the second century BCE. An assertion of orthodox Judaism against the Hellenizing influence of the region’s Greek-Macedonian overlords, the revolt culminated in the liberation of Jerusalem. The Maccabees proceeded to cleanse the Temple of pagan desecrations, but found only one jug of holy oil still sealed, and thus uncorrupted, to light the Temple’s golden menorah. The oil was only supposed to last for one day. But miraculously, the lights shined for eight days — just enough time to procure a new supply of properly consecrated holy oil.

Hanukkah, therefore, is about more than miracle oil, and the bigger story of resistance and liberation still resonates with today’s Jews — albeit at different frequencies. As it gets only a brief mention in the Talmud, Hanukkah would have been a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar had it not been promoted by Jewish activists in 19th-century America, eager to instill a sense of pride and unity in the haggard and heterogeneous masses of Jews then migrating from Europe to the United States. For them, Hanukkah could be read as a stance against assimilation into the Hellenism of the day. For today’s ultra-Orthodox, it might be a reminder of the overarching primacy of religion. To those given to a more secular take on sacred history, it’s a warning that freedom isn’t free.

As Israel tries to fit the likely consequences of its newfound supply of miracle oil into the national psyche, it had better consider that there are other parables besides the biblical similes. Here’s another one: the Eastern Mediterranean as the new Persian Gulf — highly flammable, in more than one sense.

All that mineral wealth prompted the U.S. Geological Survey to take a closer look, for the first time ever, at the oil and gas reserves hidden beneath the Eastern Mediterranean, in an area that includes not just Israel’s EEZ, but also those of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece. The staggering conclusion: In a region previously considered devoid of exploitable energy resources, the total estimate equals a staggering 345 trillion cubic feet of gas and 3.4 billion barrels of oil. (That’s enough oil to last Israel, at 2011 consumption levels, 35 years. Or roughly 1,597 Hanukkahs.) But as the region’s hydrocarbon wealth has become apparent, Israel and its neighbor, Lebanon, have begun sparring over the maritime border between them, with billions of dollars of resource wealth at stake. Israel is not a signatory to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides an international framework for the demarcation of economic exclusion zones, opening up its interpretation of its EEZ to disputes. It doesn’t help that Lebanon and Israel, which would need to agree on the line, are still technically at war with each other. In 2010 and 2011, respectively, Lebanon and Israel deposed their rival claims with the United Nations. Complicating matters further are additional claims by the militant group Hezbollah, which says the entire Tamar gas field is in Lebanese waters.

Another element of tension comes from the southern edge of Israel’s EEZ. The Gaza Strip’s 25 miles of Mediterranean coast — which potentially contains enough gas reserves to satisfy Palestinian demand for 15 years at current consumption levels — might become Hamas’s newest front in its war with Israel. Will coming years see dinghies piloted by suicide bombers slip out of Gaza at night, aiming for Israel’s forest of oil and gas rigs? Will the Third Intifada be fought on water?

Israel’s precarious geopolitical situation is on the minds of all hydrocarbon companies coming to do business in the Levantine basin. But in a world that has run out of easy reserves, the prospect of terrorist attacks is just one more expensive risk to consider.

Perhaps there is a way of reducing that risk — and generate a rising tide that lifts all boats, so to speak. Palestine discovered its offshore reserves over a decade ago, but they remain undeveloped as one of the many economy-stunting effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Would it not be a great investment in the security of their other rigs if Woodside (or whoever will eventually drill the Israeli gas bonanza) invested in Palestinian oil and gas exploitation too?

Joint Israeli-Palestinian hydrocarbon extraction — now that would be a miracle even bigger than Hanukkah itself.