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A friend asked me a difficult question last week: Why do Israelis appear not to realize that kicking the global oil habit is a Zionist issue? This blind spot seems particularly unfathomable after a month-long war in which the enemy, as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times aptly noted last week, was financed entirely by petrodollars: Not only did Iranian oil pay for Hizbullah's arms and training; it is also financing the $12,000 cash grants that Hizbullah is now giving Lebanese war victims - an enormous sum by Lebanese standards, which will do much to ensure that many Lebanese, far from repudiating Hizbullah for provoking the destruction, will instead laud it for underwriting the recovery.
But the problem goes far beyond Hizbullah. Oil revenues finance virtually every physical threat that Israel faces, from Palestinian suicide bombers (Teheran sends money to all the Palestinian terror groups) to Syrian missiles to Iran's nuclear program. Clearly, these threats would not disappear if the oil money dried up; fanatics throughout history have proven willing to pursue their goals even at enormous financial sacrifice. But success is much less likely when money is scarce.
Moreover, oil accounts for a substantial portion of Arab/Iranian diplomatic clout. Again, this clout would not disappear if oil did; sheer numbers give the Muslim world influence independent of economic power, and Muslim extremists' willingness to launch terror attacks against countries that defy their demands significantly magnifies this influence. Nevertheless, Arab/Iranian clout depends partly on their control of a vital economic resource. Absent the oil weapon, Israel would have a much better chance of winning diplomatic support from rising powers such as China and India, which have no inherent quarrel with it and considerable interest in technological cooperation, but currently subordinate most other considerations to their urgent need for oil to fuel their growing economies.
THERE IS, of course, one obvious explanation for Israel's neglect of the oil problem: However desirable reducing global oil consumption might be, Israel has little power over this issue. Granted, it could reduce its own oil consumption, and ought to do so for purely economic reasons: This would free up valuable funds for other purposes. But even a radical Israeli cutback in consumption would barely be felt on global markets. Israel is simply too small.
Nevertheless, Israel can do two things that might make a genuine difference.
First, while Israel is not a population powerhouse, it is a research and development powerhouse. It leads the world in the number of start-ups and scientific papers per capita, and ranks third in the number of patents per capita. And it already has a history of contributions to alternative energy development: Luz, for instance, was a pioneer in the field of solar power, and Ormat is a world leader in geothermal energy.
Nevertheless, the government could do more to encourage innovative research in this field. It could, for instance, announce that promising initiatives in alternative energy will be given first priority in its annual allocation of R&D grants to the private sector. It could offer a hefty cash prize to the person who comes up with the most promising development in this field within a given time period. It could devote some of its own research budget to alternative energy. And it could also launch a campaign to explain the importance of such research, with the goal of persuading more bright young Israelis to devote their talents to this field.
Second, Israel is in a unique position to influence the world's leading oil guzzler - the United States.
Obviously, this is not a topic for state-to-state relations. Jerusalem has no business telling Washington how to manage domestic policy, and oil, for all its enormous foreign policy implications, is primarily a domestic issue in America.
However, Israel could urge the American Jewish community to lobby for measures that would reduce oil consumption and/or encourage alternative energy research. Thanks to its funding and organization, American Jewry punches far above its numerical weight in the lobbying business. Moreover, it is overwhelmingly liberal - which means that alternative energy is a cause that could be enthusiastically embraced even by parts of the community that shun more traditional pro-Israel lobbying.
INDEED, SUCH an initiative might have the added benefit of helping Israel to reconnect with segments of American Jewry that have been alienated by Jerusalem's anti-terror policies. These policies have sharply reduced Israeli casualties over the past four years, and Israel neither can nor should placate liberal American Jews by scrapping measures that save Israeli lives. However, neither should it stand idly by as American Jews' connection to Zionism slowly withers. A pro-Israel cause that liberal Jews could embrace could be useful in bridging the gap.
For this reason, Israel should not ask politically unidentified organizations such as AIPAC, which are needed for support on other issues, to lead this campaign. Instead, it should turn to overtly liberal organizations such as the Reform and Conservative movements. Both movements' leaders genuinely care about Israel, yet their liberal views sometimes make them uncomfortable backing it, while rallying support for Israel among their equally liberal but less committed memberships is often even more difficult. Thus a pro-Israel cause that their members could support might come as a welcome gift.
And the time to make such an overture is now - before the across-the-board support that American Jews gave Israel during its war with Hizbullah has completely dissipated. Indeed, this initiative could justly be described as a political effort to reduce the chances of another such war in the future.
The war achieved almost nothing militarily, and its alleged diplomatic gains are already collapsing: Not only are there few volunteers for the proposed international force in Lebanon, but the UN, the Lebanese Army and all potential contributors to this force have already explicitly vowed not to try to disarm Hizbullah. This may be a last chance to nevertheless salvage something from the fiasco. The government would be wise to seize it.