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There has been much talk in recent months about the prospect of Syria bolting the Iranian axis and becoming magically transformed into an ally of the West. Although Syria's President-for-life Bashar Assad's daily demonstrations of fealty to his murderous friends has exposed this talk as nothing more than fantasy, it continues to dominate the international discourse on Syria.
In the meantime, Syria's ongoing real transformation, from a more or less functioning state into an impoverished wasteland, has been ignored.
Today, the country faces the greatest economic catastrophe in its history. The crisis is causing massive malnutrition and displacement for hundreds of thousands of Syrians. These Syrians - some 250,000 mainly Kurdish farmers - have been forced off their farms over the past two years because their lands were reclaimed by the desert.
Today shantytowns have sprung up around major cities such as Damascus. They are filled with internally displaced refugees. Through a cataclysmic combination of irrational agricultural policies embraced by the Ba'athist Assad dynasty for the past 45 years that have eroded the soil, and massive digging of some 420,000 unauthorized wells that have dried out the groundwater aquifiers, Syria's regime has done everything in its power to dry up the country. The effects of these demented policies have been exacerbated in recent years by Turkey's diversion of Syria's main water source, the Euphrates River, through the construction of dams upstream, and by two years of unrelenting drought. Today, much of Syria's previously fertile farmland has become wasteland. Former farmers are now destitute day laborers with few prospects for economic recovery.
Imagine if in his country's moment of peril, instead of clinging to his alliance with Iran, Hizbullah, al-Qaida, and Hamas, Assad were to turn to Israel to help him out of this crisis?
Israel is a world leader in water desalination and recycling. The largest desalination plant in the world is located in Ashkelon. Israeli technology and engineers could help Syria rebuild its water supply.
Israel could also help Syria use whatever water it still has, or is able to produce through desalination and recycling more wisely through drip irrigation - which was invented in Israel. Israel today supplies 50 percent of the international market for drip irrigation. In places like Syria and southern Iraq that are now being dried out by the Turkish dams, irrigation is primitive - often involving nothing more than water trucks pumping water out of the Euphrates and driving it over to fields that are often less than a kilometer away.
Then there are Syria's dwindling oil reserves. No doubt, Israeli engineers and seismologists would be able to increase the efficiency and productivity of existing wells and so increase their output. It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that Israeli scientists and engineers could even discover new, untapped oil reserves.
BUT, OF COURSE, Syria isn't interested in Israel's help. Syria wants to have its enemy and eat it too. As Assad has made clear repeatedly, what he wants is to receive the Golan Heights - and through it Israel's fresh water supply - for nothing. He wants Israel to surrender the Golan Heights, plus some Israeli land Syria illegally occupied from 1948-1967, in exchange for a meaningless piece of paper.
In this demand, Assad is supported by none other than Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan, whose country is drying Syria out. It is Erdogan after all, who mediated talks aimed at convincing then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to give up the Golan Heights and it is Erdogan today who is encouraging the Obama administration to pressure Israel to surrender its water to Syria.
Beyond demanding that Israel give him the Golan Heights, Assad is happy associating with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah, Khaled Mashaal and various and sundry al-Qaida leaders who move freely through his territory. Hanging out with these murderers affords him the opportunity to feel like a real man - a master of the universe who can kill Israelis, Iraqis and Americans and terrorize the Lebanese into submission.
As for his problems at home, Assad imprisons any Syrian engineer with the temerity to point out that by exporting cotton Syria is effectively exporting water. Assad doesn't fear that his regime will collapse under the weight of five decades of Ba'athist economic imbecility. He is banking on the US and Europe saving him from the consequences of his own incompetence through economic handouts; by turning a blind eye to his continued economic exploitation of Lebanon; and perhaps by coercing Israel into surrendering the Golan Heights.
THE SAME, of course, can be said of the Palestinians. Actually, the case of the Palestinians is even more extraordinary. From 1967 through 1987 - when through their violent uprising they decided to cut their economy off from Israel's - Palestinian economic growth in Gaza, Judea and Samaria rose by double digits every year. Indeed, while linked to Israel's, the Palestinian economy was the fourth fastest growing economy in the world. But since 1994, when the PLO took over, although the Palestinians have become the largest per capita foreign aid recipients in recorded history, the Palestinian economy has contracted on a per capita basis.
The one sure-fire path to economic growth and prosperity is for the Palestinians to reintegrate their economy with Israel's. But to do this, they must first end their involvement in terrorism and open their economy to free market forces and the transparency and rule of law and protection for property rights that form the foundations of those forces. The very notion of doing so, however, is considered so radical that supposedly moderate, pro-peace and free market friendly Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayad rejected the economic peace plan put forward by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu out of hand. After all, how can the Palestinians accept free market forces when it means that - horror of horrors - Jews might buy and sell land and other resources?
The Palestinians and the Syrians are not alone. From Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and Indonesia, the Arab and Muslim world has preferred poverty and economic backwardness to the prosperity that would come from engaging Israel. They prefer their staunch rejection of Israel and hatred of Jews and the economic stagnation this involves to the prosperity and political freedom and stability that would come from an acceptance of Israel.
AS AMERICAN economic and technology guru George Gilder puts it in his new book The Israel Test, "The test of a culture is what it accomplishes in advancing the human cause - what it creates rather than what it claims."
Gilder's book is a unique and necessary contribution to the current international debate about the Middle East. Rather than concentrate solely on Arab claims from Israel as most writers do, Gilder turns his attention to what the nations of the region create. Specifically, he shows that only Israel creates wealth through creativity and innovation and that today Israel is contributing more to the human cause through its scientific, technological and financial advances than any other country in the world except the US.
The Israel Test describes in riveting detail both the massive contributions of mainly Diaspora Jews to the US victories in World War II and the Cold War and to the scientific revolutions of the 20th century that set the foundations for the computer age, and the massive contributions of Israeli Jews to the digital revolution that defines and shapes our economic realities today.
But before Gilder begins to describe these great Jewish contributions to the global economy and the general well-being of people around the world, he asserts that the future of the world will be determined by its treatment of Israel. As he puts it, "The central issue in international politics, dividing the world into two fractious armies, is the tiny state of Israel."
In his view, "Israel defines a line of demarcation," between those who pass and those who fail what he refers to as "the Israel test."
Gilder poses the test to his readers by asking them a few questions: "What is your attitude toward people who excel you in the creation of wealth or in other accomplishment? Do you aspire to their excellence, or do you seethe at it? Do you admire and celebrate exceptional achievement or do you impugn it and seek to tear it down?"
By his telling, the future of civilization will be determined by how the nations of the world - and particularly, how the American people - answer these questions.
Gilder's book is valuable on its own accord. I personally learned an enormous amount about Israel's pioneering role in the information economy. Beyond that, it provides a stunning rebuttal to the central arguments of the other major book that has been written about Israel and the Arabs in the US in recent years.
Steve Walt and John Mearshimer's The Israel Lobby has two central arguments. First, they argue that Israel has little value as an ally to the US. Second, they assert that given Israel's worthlessness to the US, the only reasonable explanation of why Americans overwhelmingly support Israel is that they have been manipulated by a conspiracy of Jewish organizations and Jewish-owned and controlled media and financial outlets. In their view, the nefarious Jewish-controlled forces have bamboozled the American people into believing that Israel is important to them and even a kindred nation to the US.
Gilder blows both arguments out of the water without even directly engaging them or noting Israel's singular contributions to US intelligence and military prowess. Instead, he demonstrates that Israel is an indispensable motor for the US economy, which in turn is the principal driver of US power globally. Much of Silicon Valley's economic prowess is founded on technologies made in Israel. Everything from the microchip to the cellphone has either been made in Israel or by Israelis in Silicon Valley.
It is Gilder's own admiration for Israel's exceptional achievements that puts paid Walt and Mearshimer's second argument. There is something distinctively American in his enthusiasm for Israel's innovative genius. From America's earliest beginnings, the American character has been imbued with an admiration for achievement. As a nation, Americans have always passed Gilder's Israel test.
Taken together with the other reasons for American support for Israel - particularly religious affinity for the people of the Bible - Gilder's book shows that the American and Israeli people are indeed natural friends and allies bound together by their exceptionalism that motivates them to strive for excellence and progress to the benefit of all mankind.
Today Americans commemorate the eighth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Those attacks were the greatest confrontation to date between American exceptionalism and Islamist nihilism. On this day, Gilder's book serves as a reminder of what makes the US and its exceptional ally Israel worth defending at all costs. The Israel Test also teaches us that so long as we keep faith with ourselves, we will not be alone in our fight against barbarism and hatred, and inevitably, we will emerge the victors in this bitter fight.