The longest-running reality show

A staged performance sponsored by the Middle East's petro-dictators consumes fans all around the globe.

rafah palestinians 298.8 (photo credit: AP [file])
rafah palestinians 298.8
(photo credit: AP [file])
Why are the Palestinian people the world's only permanent refugees? Why do the hundreds of millions of dollars the UN and the European Union invest in the Palestinian people year after year result not in Palestinian prosperity but only in persistent Palestinian poverty? Why have the Arab countries refused from the beginning to welcome Palestinian refugees into their countries? Who benefited from Yasser Arafat's refusal to accept prime minister Ehud Barak's offer of a Palestinian state? When Israel's disengagement from Gaza could have served as a concrete step in establishing that Palestinian state, why, instead of it becoming a hub of new economic activity, does Gaza's sole export continue to be Kassam missiles? The plight of the Palestinian people is not economic, not political, not spiritual and not historical. It is theatrical. The so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the world's longest-running reality show. It is a staged performance sponsored by the Middle East's petro-petrolators and watched by their loyal oil-consuming fans all around the globe - which includes you, dear reader, and me. WHY DON'T these petrol despots want us to change the channel, as it were? Why are they determined to keep this hit show on the air for as long as possible? Because the reality show is a distraction, and the petrol despots want us distracted. An oil economy is an extraction economy, and extraction economies need distractions to function well. The so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict - what the oil despots sponsor and what glues us to the screen - should finally be given its true name: "Extraction Distraction." Oil economies, extraction economies, generate wealth by poking the earth and taking something out. As columnist Tom Friedman writes, extraction economies offer "economic power without productivity." There is no need for education or creativity in an oil economy; no need for hard work or imagination or healthy competition. For an oil economy to work properly the country just needs a strongman ruler who lords it over his crew of tough guys who, in turn, arrange to haul the stuff out of the earth and haul the cash back into the country, thereby keeping things stable and efficient so everyone stays happy. It's a resource curse, this propensity for extraction economies to favor strongmen rulers. Like trust-fund babies who make a mess of their lives, an oil economy gives people the security of a trust fund along with the low expectations of a welfare program. Who wouldn't love a trust fund; but it's humiliating and dispiriting to be on a culture-wide welfare program. As Warren Buffett once said, "A very rich person should leave his kids enough money to do anything, but not enough to do nothing." IF THE people have little to do, if the petrol despots keep the people under their thumb, if too little of the oil money gets invested in ennobling the people, to whom the oil really belongs, then how come the strongmen manage to keep their power year in and year out? Here's where the theater comes in. Make a great commotion, put an entire people into permanent distress, announce your solidarity with the national aspirations of that people, but never allow them to realize those aspirations. Sponsor atrocities with lots of blood and gore, provoke some state with industrial or military power to react to those atrocities, denounce the reaction to those atrocities and transform the encounter into a clash of civilizations. Most importantly, play out the whole melodrama on the nightly newscasts day after day after day - and you have a recipe for a reality hit show the likes of which could run in the Arab street and in the European salons forever. Extraction Distraction not only gulls the West. It continually keeps Arab citizens from attending to their own benighted condition, rallying them instead to be incensed about the plight of the Palestinians. Extraction Distraction is a vengeance vortex. It draws the Muslim world into its whirlpool, and none but the very brave can resist its pull. ISRAEL - with the highest number of companies traded on the NASDAQ of any country save the US and Canada, with the world's highest ratio of R&D to GDP, with 135 scientists and engineers for every 10,000 employees - is the antithesis of an extraction economy. For that reason alone the oil despots must cast Israel as the oppressor power responsible for the woes of oppressed peoples in the Middle East, especially the Palestinians. Airing repeated reruns of Extraction Distraction - making sure Palestinians focus on terrorizing Israelis rather than on nation-building, and making sure Israelis are drawn into counterterrorist activity that the world can condemn as "disproportionate force" in pursuit of hegemonic purpose - is what props up the petro-dictators, keeps their extraction economies in place, ensures we keep paying for them, and keeps the peoples of Arabia placidly powerless, awash in persistent and proliferating terror. WHAT WOULD happen in Iran and Saudi Arabia if their citizens were permitted to live by the fruits of their own hard work, their own imaginations and creativity, instead of from handouts extracted from the earth? Just as the citizens of the former Soviet Empire caught wind of the fruits of capitalism and stopped believing the Kremlin's mythology about Western oppression, so the citizens of the Arab countries will one day taste what their counterparts today in the former Soviet Union as well as China, India and Cambodia, are enjoying today. When the Arabians gain responsibility and opportunity for their own prosperity the myth of their oppression will begin to crumble, and the walls, as it were, will come tumbling down. What to do? To end Extraction Distraction, we need a V-Chip for today and a corporate buy-out for tomorrow and all days thereafter. The V-Chip is at the disposal of all who do hasbara for Israel. To every reporter who asks about the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to every college demonstration on behalf of Palestinian liberation, to every UN resolution punishing Israel for the woes of the Palestinians, you say: "You're being duped by the oil industry. The road to Gaza runs right through Riyadh and Teheran. And by the way, what car do you drive?" (Incidentally, a version of this works well at your local Save Darfur rally. Ask yourself where the Chinese get their oil, and you'll know why the powers that be are so patient about not ending genocide in Sudan.) Changing the subject of hasbara is the V-chip for Extraction Distraction diehards. THE CORPORATE buyout is turning off the oil tap. That is up to all of us. Each of us who right now drives a car that runs on fossil fuels owns shares in Extraction Distraction. If we want to change the show, we need new sponsors; we must turn off the tap. The alternatives are here to cars that run on Middle East oil - people are driving them right now in Brazil and Taiwan - and, yes, across Europe and in the United States. Check out the hybrids on the market: They accelerate faster than traditional automobiles; they integrate well with high-end electronics gadgets and information technology; they're better for the environment - and they use less oil. (Indeed, for those who use their hybrids only for picking up and dropping off kids and other short-distance errands, these cars can run virtually oil free.) Or, if you want to peer into the near future, take a look at the Chevy Volt, due on roads near you within three or so years. This car will run practically oil-free; the engine will be there simply to recharge the battery that powers the electric motor. Financial capital is becoming available to improve and scale these alternatives: Venture capital investments in the transportation sector in the first three quarters of 2006 increased five-fold over the same period in 2005. Mr. Gates and the folks at are busy peopling the transportation revolution with the same human creativity that brought us the communications revolution and the information revolution. Want to bet on Gates and Google? Of course we do. And so should our counterparts in Teheran and Baghdad and Riyadh and Cairo, and, yes, Gaza. Just as NATO contained the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, so, drop by drop, we can contain the petro-dictators of OPEC. Today 25 million people are driving 12 million electric scooters in Taiwan. Imagine a tomorrow when kids in NYC and Jerusalem and Amman and Darfur are tooling around in oil-free vehicles they plug in to recharge the same way they now plug in their cell-phones. What do you suppose the world will be watching then? I can't say; but the Extraction Distraction melodrama will have been cancelled. Oil-independence will have become the true liberation movement of our time. The writer is the director of Strategy & Evaluation at The Avi Chai Foundation.