feature | Antony Loewenstein

193-coverOVERLAND 193
summer 2008

published 19 November 2008


Antony Loewenstein on oil, the Middle East and the media

In a striking 2005 essay for the Atlantic, Richard A. Clarke, former chief counter-terrorism adviser on the US National Security Council, painted a picture of an America still at war with ‘terror’ in 2011. More suicide attacks on the homeland, detention of Muslims, reduced civil liberties and imperial overreach all combined in a vision of a superpower losing control over its own citizens and desperately lashing out at the world. Most ominously, Clarke predicted that, after an Iranian attack on Saudi tankers, ‘world oil prices spiked to $81 a barrel, before falling back to $72 a month later’. Just think: this piece was published in early 2005, only four years ago – yet Clarke’s fears about an oil spike now seem comically inaccurate.

‘For America’, declared then Texas governor George W. Bush in September 1999, ‘this is the time of unrivalled military power, economic promise and cultural influence.’

Less than a decade on, the world is a radically different place. The energy appetites of China and India are insatiable, countries like Nigeria and Kazakhstan find themselves at the centre of a new ‘great game’, with authoritarian leaders duchessed by oil-hungry nations, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez delivers around 10 per cent of America’s imported oil: some 1.4 million barrels per day. The years since September 11 have taught Washington a lesson in humility and the pitfalls of hubris.

Remember media baron Rupert Murdoch’s confidence before the 2003 Iraq invasion? Aside from praising the ‘moral’ stance of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, his main focus was something less esoteric (though his 170 or more global titles didn’t forget to endorse the ethics of the war). ‘The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy,’ he argued in February 2003, ‘if you could put it that way, would be US$20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in any country.’

Murdoch’s statement signalled the pinnacle of oil arrogance, a belief that resources were endlessly ripe for the taking. It’s hard to believe that discussions about energy security were rarely heard in the mainstream before the Iraq war. But today, fear has set in. Politicians must be seen to be doing something, no matter what hypocrisy it involves – like, for instance, Australia planning an emission-trading scheme while still selling dirty coal to China, one of the world’s biggest polluters. The vast majority of corporate journalists are fully signed-up members of the climate change mafia, neither understanding the science behind global warming nor daring to explain the real reasons behind oil scarcity.

Welcome to our new reality. Leading oil expert Richard Heinberg, speaking on ABC TV Lateline in May 2008, when the price of oil had passed US$140 a barrel, argued that, ‘over the long term there’s nowhere for oil prices to go but up. And we could, in fact, see prices considerably above $200 a barrel within the next two or three years.’ Heinberg went on: ‘I think that the evidence is lining up very strongly in favour of a notion of a near-term global oil production peak. For the last two years oil declines have led oil advances, I think a pretty good argument can be made that we’re there right now.’

Canadian writer Naomi Klein experienced a moment of unexpected clarity on the issue in July 2008 when she was in conversation with ‘independent conservative’ radio host Jerry Doyle. He burst forth with the following suggestion as a way to lower energy pressure in the US:

I think I have a quick way to bring the prices down. We’ve invested US$650 billion to liberate a nation of twenty-five million people. Shouldn’t we just demand that they give us oil? There should be tankers after tankers backed up like a traffic jam getting into the Lincoln Tunnel, the Stinkin’ Lincoln, at rush hour with thank-you notes from the Iraqi government … Why don’t we just take the oil? We’ve invested it liberating a country. I can have the problem solved of gas prices coming down in ten days, not ten years.

In fact, Doyle’s plan comes pretty close to what is currently happening in Iraq: ‘the biggest stick-up in world history’, as Klein puts it.

Andrew J. Bacevich, West Point graduate and retired colonel, convincingly argues in The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism that neither John McCain nor Barack Obama will be able to convince Americans ‘to see the direction in which we are headed. And from my point of view, it’s a direction towards ever-greater debt and dependency.’ He goes on:

The pursuit of freedom, as defined in an age of consumerism, has induced a condition of dependence on imported goods, on imported oil, and on credit. The chief desire of the American people is that nothing should disrupt their access to these goods, that oil, and that credit. The chief aim of the US government is to satisfy that desire, which it does in part through the distribution of largesse here at home, and in part through the pursuit of imperial ambitions abroad.

But these kinds of arguments remain on the fringes of the mainstream media, herded into airless holding pens to be killed painlessly away from the political elite.

It’s unlikely that Murdoch cares that his 2003 prediction proved so spectacularly wrong. He has bigger fish to fry. Besides, for many oil companies, energy scarcity is wonderful for business. ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, posted a quarterly profit in August this year of US$12 billion. Shell made a healthy US$11 billion in the same period.

Of course, the fact that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to source and produce new petroleum means that the cost of getting the resource to market is also rising. This will, in time, affect the bottom line (though you’d be hard pressed to feel sorry for the oil companies as, according to a report released by the US Congress in August 2008, two-thirds of US corporations paid no federal income taxes between 1998 and 2005).

There isn’t total consensus over the issue of sourcing new energy reserves, however. Writing in Canada’s conservative National Post in July this year, Lawrence Solomon, executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute, contended that ‘never before in human history has energy been accessible in greater abundance and in more regions, never before has mankind had more energy options and faced a brighter energy future.’ He argues that:

most of the world remains unexplored – the interiors of Africa, Asia and South America have seen relatively little oil exploration. Oil exploration in the oceans, too, is in its infancy. For all practical purposes, mankind has limitless oil supplies available to it. The story is similar for natural gas and coal, the other major non-renewable sources of energy. And for nuclear power. And for the renewables.

In other words, the Western powers should heavily invest in draining the resources of the less privileged world and then enjoy the profits. This is, in fact, largely what is already taking place. A handful of examples will suffice:

  • Chevron has been lobbying the American administration to pressure Ecuador to stop a US$12 billion pollution lawsuit filed by 30,000 Amazon residents who claim that the company dumped billions of gallons of toxic oil waste on their land. ‘We can’t let the little countries screw around with big companies like this’, a Chevron spokesperson told Newsweek.
  • The Democratic Republic of São Tomé, off the western equatorial coast of Africa, finds itself at the centre of a potential petroleum boom, with Western oil companies offering ludicrously lopsided petroleum contracts to the impoverished nation.
  • The insurgency in the Niger Delta rages on, with the vast bulk of the population not benefiting from the billions of dollars of oil taken by companies such as Chevron and Shell. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced in mid-2008 that his country would provide Nigeria with ‘security forces’ so that they could ‘restore order’ and get the oil flowing smoothly again.
  • At least thirty-five multinationals are planning massive oil and gas projects in the Amazon, with vast swathes of the region designated for exploration. Of sixty-four oil and gas regions that cover 72 per cent of the Peruvian Amazon, all but eight were approved since 2003.
  • After a twelve-year struggle in the courts, a US federal judge ruled in 2008 that the US government owed a group of Native Americans nearly half a billion dollars for unpaid royalties on drilling for gas and oil. The $455 million judgment is just a portion of the $47 billion the Native Americans are seeking in the largest ever class-action lawsuit against the US government. The suit seeks to force the government to account for all royalties due individual Native Americans since 1887 on stolen lands.
  • The August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia revolved around the issue of oil access. The Russian Federation remains upset with the independent former Soviet republics of the Caspian Sea basin looking for Western firms to exploit their natural resources. During US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s visit to Georgia in September 2008, one of his key priorities, largely ignored in the Western media, was to ensure continuous oil flow through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the exclusion of Russia from any future negotiations.
  • The Pentagon has fuel costs for the ever-expanding ‘war on terror’ currently running at roughly US$12 billion annually. According to the Department of Defense, the Pentagon paid more than $70 million to a company called Hunt Refining in the last few years. The only problem, reported the New York Times in July 2008, was that Hunt Oil had pursued ‘an oil deal with the regional Kurdistan government that ran counter to American policy and undercut Iraq’s central government’.
  • The Pentagon and the US government, writes journalist Nick Turse, have ‘evidently decided to prepare for 100 years of war against various outposts of a restless, oppressed population of slum-dwellers one billion strong and growing at an estimated rate of 25 million a year’.

Such ‘visions’ require massive amounts of investment and energy resources – and a perverse imagination to conceptualise the ability to manage the ‘natives’ in far away lands. To make matters worse, according to research by journalist Tim Shorrock in Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, in 2006 the cost of America’s outsourcing to contractors reached US$42 billion, roughly 70 per cent of the government’s annual budget on foreign and domestic intelligence. These services are all energy-hungry and privatisation has made the ability to monitor them transparently almost impossible.

What do all these examples prove? That the race for dwindling resources will almost inevitably see a century defined by resource wars, of which Iraq is the first major example. Ironically, as Iraq’s US-backed government gathers strength, it appears to be rejecting many conditions placed upon it by Washington, not least the maintenance of troops and permanent bases in the country, and grossly unfair oil deals with Western energy firms.


Veterans gathered in Maryland in March this year to testify at Winter Soldier, with eyewitness accounts of atrocities by US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. The event was modelled on the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings held during the Vietnam War. The picture that was revealed was of a rampaging military largely free of enforceable rules of engagement, using outlawed napalm gas to oust alleged insurgents in Fallujah in 2004, and uploading gruesome images of dead Iraqis onto sites in exchange for online pornography. Every Iraqi was the enemy. Jason Lemieux, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq, told it straight: ‘The rules of engagement have been broadly defined and loosely enforced to protect US service members at the expense of the Iraqi people, and anyone who tells you different is either a liar or a fool.’ Lemieux recalled a battle in Anbar province in 2004:

After the firefight was over, the standing rules of engagement for my unit were changed so that Marines didn’t need to identify a hostile action anymore in order to use deadly force; they just had to identify hostile intent. The rules also explicitly stated that carrying a shovel, standing on a rooftop while speaking on a cell phone or holding binoculars, or being out after curfew were automatically considered hostile intent, and we were authorised to use deadly force. And I can only guess how many innocent people died during my tour because of those orders.

As Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian write in Collateral Damage, after speaking to dozens of US soldiers, ‘American Marines and soldiers have become socialised to atrocity’.

The killing of Arabs has become almost an innocuous pastime. In a 2006 article, the neoconservative Reuel Marc Gerecht, a resident fellow at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, wrote, in the context of alleged American soldier abuses in Haditha, Iraq, that ‘indiscriminately bombarding German civilians in World War II [and] mowing down Vietnamese peasants at My Lai do not necessarily diminish the rightness of the cause for which we fight … Successful counterinsurgencies are always ugly and morally challenging.’

Fellow neocon John Podhoretz pontificated in the New York Post in July 2006: ‘What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn’t kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything?’

The message is clear. Any methods – murder, rape, ethnic cleansing and the use of chemical weapons – are justified to attain certain goals.

The treatment of hundreds of innocent Muslims at Guantanamo Bay is indicative of the mindset. New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer reveals in her 2008 book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, that, as early as 2002, the CIA reported that as many as a third of prisoners were there by mistake.

How do these stories relate to energy security in the Middle East? The crisis necessitates us viewing the region not as nations with human beings but solely as a source of resources. Oil reserves are desperately needed and profits must be made, so backing dictatorships or overthrowing unfriendly ones is a price worth paying. To hell with the human cost: they’re only Arabs, anyway.

In that sense, the experience of Israel in occupying the land of a hostile people, the Palestinians, has become a model for American plans for the Middle East. Robert Fisk, in his seminal book about the Lebanese civil war, Pity the Nation, discusses the ways in which the Jewish state virtually invented the ‘war on terror’ rhetoric used by America after September 11. Any threat is a ‘terrorist’. Any challenge to hegemony is a ‘terrorist’. All Arabs are inherently ‘terrorists’. Terrorist, terrorist, terrorist.

Indeed, Israeli military planners advised Washington before the Iraq war how to manage the inevitable Arab resistance. The fact that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories has failed to quell fierce opposition appears not to have been relevant. Clearly Israel and the US consider low-level resistance a manageable price to pay for dominating a restless population.

When talking about energy scarcity and the Middle East, the elephant in the room is always Israel, a country that is the highest recipient of US foreign aid annually, maintains hundreds of nuclear warheads, and thrives on one of the top five arms industries in the world. US foreign policy since the 1967 Six Day War, and even more so since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, has been to protect and expand the Jewish state’s dominance in the region. Rivals must be challenged and intimidated. Maintenance of realpolitik equilibrium requires financial incentives, military threats and autocracies.

Jonathan Cook, the British-born and Nazareth-based journalist, writes in Israel and the Clash of Civilisations that, like the Bush administration, Israel actively pursues policies that lead to civil war and partition. Cook bravely skewers the mainstream narrative of a Jewish state constantly striving for peace with the Palestinians. Israel’s security establishment developed ideas in the 1980s that advocated dissolving many of the Middle East nations, leaving Israel, like the Ottomans in centuries past, to be the local imperial power. ‘In this way, hoped Israel and the [predominantly Zionist] neocons,’ Cook writes, ‘large and potentially powerful states such as Iraq and Iran could be partitioned between their ethnic rivalries and sectarian communities.’

Cook doesn’t focus extensively on energy issues, preferring to examine the similarities between the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and America’s plans in Iraq, arguing that Washington found an invaluable template for its own occupation after carefully studying the Jewish state’s record of dividing and conquering the indigenous population. But the underlying agenda of maintaining regional hegemony in an oil rich area is a mammoth task that requires constant vigilance.

Take Iran: the Islamic Republic, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is prone to making outrageous statements about Jews and the Holocaust, is almost the perfect gift for Israel and its supporters. Iran, thanks to the Iraq war, has become an immensely powerful nation that challenges the Jewish state’s dominance. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter claimed in July this year that ‘the war between the United States and Iran is on’. American tax-dollars, with the permission of Congress, are already funding activities ‘which result in Iranians being killed and wounded, and Iranian property destroyed’.

Central to understanding the desperate measures undertaken by Israel and its proxies is an analysis of the nuclear issue. We are constantly bombarded by allegations that Tehran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The vast bulk of the ‘evidence’ for this comes from Israel and the MEK, a militant Islamic socialist organisation that advocates the overthrow of Iran’s government (the United States, European Union, Canada, Iraq and Iran have designated the group a terrorist organisation). In all likelihood, the wilder claims are as unreliable as the ‘proof’ by Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress of Saddam’s WMDs before the 2003 invasion – and yet on the basis of these accusations, Iran is expected to suspend its nuclear enrichment program, despite this being a right of signatories to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

In any case, Israel maintains a large nuclear arsenal and refuses to allow international inspections into its nuclear, chemical or biological weapons program. Yet the West only ever deems Tehran’s behaviour problematic.

‘When will the Western powers admit’, wrote Guardian columnist George Monbiot in late 2007, ‘that Iran is not starting a nuclear arms race, but joining one? When will they demand that the rules they impose on Iran should also apply to Israel?’

Like North Korea before it, Iran, a country that has not invaded another country in recent decades, believes that its security can only be secured by developing nuclear energy or, quite possibly, even weapons. From Iran’s perspective, there are many good reasons why the bomb may seem necessary: to its east, Iran has Afghanistan, a Sunni-led country, and Pakistan with nuclear arms; on its north is Russia; on its west, Israel.

Yet to Western commentators none of that matters. In a post-Iraq world – after Iran covertly assisted America overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan – America’s and Israel’s primary concern remains Iran’s ability to disrupt the political and energy status quo. Everything else is just empty rhetoric. From Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s perspective, unlimited access to oil cannot be guaranteed with a resurgent Tehran. Military action against Iran is therefore a distinct possibility, even after the departure of the Bush administration.

As an anti-Zionist Jew, it pains me to write that the mainstream Jewish Diaspora has allowed zealots to speak for ‘the Jews’, as if occupation and intimidation are Jewish traits. Supporting the invasion of Iraq, bombing Iran, attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon, expanding settlements in the West Bank and destroying Hamas in Gaza are all supposedly signs of a ‘pro-Israel’ stance in the early twenty-first century. The majority of Jewish organisations have basically turned a blind eye to Palestinian suffering for the last sixty years.

‘By repeatedly invoking the Holocaust,’ writes American Jewish blogger Phil Weiss, ‘Jews have justified an inward focus and blinded themselves to terrible injustices in their back yard.’

As the Jewish American professor Marc Ellis told ABC radio in 2001, contemporary Judaism is being increasingly defined through the barrel of the gun: ‘If we want helicopter gunships to define us as a people, say it … but don’t pretend that helicopter gunships are not defining us.’

Washington’s absurd bias towards Zionist expansion and occupation neuters any possibility of honest discussion about democratising the Middle East. Real democracy would likely elect Islamists to power across the region, yet the world has vividly seen the brutal response of the West to the democratically elected Hamas government in Gaza – a warning about what happens when the ‘wrong’ party wins.

But should we really fear Islamism? Alastair Crooke, the founder of Conflicts Forum, an organisation seeking to bridge the gap between Islamists and the West, has written that an engagement with figures in the Muslim world who ‘challenge Western secular and materialist values’ is essential to avoid a real ‘clash of civilisations’. Yet the Bush years have seen little more than a military campaign to embrace ‘good’ Islamists – such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and the so-called US-backed Awakening Movement in Iraq against al-Qaeda – and to eliminate those Muslims who resist Washington’s designs.

Sadly, Israel and its supporters have largely funded and backed these campaigns, leaving the Jewish state in a more vulnerable place than before September 11.


Why are these issues rarely examined in our media? It’s as if mainstream journalists instinctively know the boundaries of acceptable debate, rarely challenging the sordid, decades-old relationship between the West and the Middle East. In my new book, The Blogging Revolution, I argue that the Western media routinely demonise nations that impede America’s designs on the world and conversely praise leaders who accept Western dictates. ‘Enemies’ and ‘friends’ are clearly marked. So, for example, the war in Iraq, with over one million killed and millions of internally and externally displaced refugees, is framed in terms of American ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’. The Iraqi people are largely ignored in this equation.

There are noble exceptions, however, such as McClatchy Newspapers’ Inside Iraq blog, which features posts by Iraqi journalists working for the US newspaper company. American writer Dahr Jamail, an Alaskan mountain guide at the beginning of the Iraq war, has now become one of the finest chroniclers of the occupation of Mesopotamia. He actually allows ordinary Iraqis to speak and be heard, ignoring the predictable statements by generals and politicians. Professor S. Abdul Majeed Hassan, an Iraqi university faculty member, wrote to Jamail a few years ago:

Most Americans figured out the real reasons behind the invasion of Iraq and the terrible consequences of that war for them, currently and in the future. The American people I know are kind, considerate, and understanding. I am sure they will do what it will take to end this occupation. They know by now that this is not a war of the American people; it is the oil companies’ war, so why should they sacrifice their young men and women for oil companies’ greed?

Of course, the Murdoch press in Australia has spent the past years decrying ‘progressives’ for (in the words of the Australian‘s editor-at-large Paul Kelly in September 2006) ‘their refusal to admit they are part of the problem’ and talking up the supposedly ‘global Islamist movement bent on the destruction of the West’. Such hyperbole should be treated with the contempt it deserves. Osama Bin Laden’s ultimate ideological plan – a caliphate that stretches across large swathes of the world – is utterly impossible to implement and yet Western societies are supposed to fundamentally alter their ways of life to defeat him.

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, in his incendiary book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, chastises the mainstream media for ‘enabling’ such fallacies. The ‘national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration’, he argues. The vast majority of the Australian media were equally culpable. Perhaps the best exhibit of that is the editorial in the Australian in February 2006 that warned, with a complete lack of concious irony, that ‘the media must not become the tool of propagandists’.

Bob Woodward, in his 2006 book, State of Denial, reports how, a few months after September 11, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz gathered a number of Middle East ‘experts’ to outline a strategy to manage the region in the aftermath of the terror attacks. Included on the invite list were Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International, and Robert D. Kaplan, correspondent for the Atlantic. A clearer example of an embedded mindset would, you’d think, be difficult to find – but, then, in April 2008, the New York Times revealed that many of the military ‘experts’ featuring on every major American TV station since the Iraq war were Pentagon plants, simply re-hashing Bush administration talking points. Those revelations also sank virtually without a trace, as did a Senate Intelligence Report in June 2008 that suggested Iranian exiles may have provided dubious intelligence on Iraq and Iran to a small group of Pentagon officials who were ‘used as agents of a foreign intelligence service’.

The Western media continues to parade pundits who, since September 11, have been wrong about Iraq, WMD and the Bush administration, yet remain ‘serious’ commentators on the ‘war on terror’. Many journalists prefer to see themselves as players in the political process and influencing public policy, rather than maintaining the necessary sceptical distance required of good reporters. Knight Ridder’s Washington DC bureau was, for instance, almost alone in explicitly expressing scepticism of the alleged link between Saddam Hussein and global terrorism – which might help explain the Harris poll result from 2006 that showed half of American adults still believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Simply put, as Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald wrote in July 2008, the vast majority of scoops during the Bush years have not come from journalists but from whistleblowers inside the government, and advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. A notable exception was the reporter Ron Suskind, who revealed in The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism that the White House ordered the CIA in 2003 to forge and disseminate a letter linking al-Qaeda to Iraq, allegedly written by the head of Iraqi intelligence. Such stories should bring a government to its knees, but Bush administration denials effectively killed the yarn.

The past few years have forced us to endure endless articles about the ‘threat’ to Western civilisation – after the fall of John Howard, Canadian commentator Mark Steyn actually lamented the end of a government that ‘defended’ Western culture – and about how ‘we’ must take the fight to the ‘enemy’, a formulation that implies endless war against a long list of adversaries. Under the guise of defeating ‘Islamic fascism’, a whole host of other goals are surreptitiously slipped into the equation. ‘Democracy promotion’ has a much sexier ring to it than the protection of energy supplies. But this is one of the key objectives of neoconservative ideology, the promotion of ‘national greatness’, no matter the cost to the indigenous population of the country being ‘liberated’.

I’ve spent years writing, speaking and campaigning for a just Middle East and faced intense hostility in doing so. Advocating for Palestinian rights can be a lonely business, drawing hatred from the mainstream Jewish community for daring to criticise the racially discriminatory Zionist state. Hate-mail and death threats have become a part of life since I first started speaking out in 2003. I was initially shocked by the invective thrown in my direction by fellow Jews, the accusations that I had no right to speak out publicly if I wasn’t sufficiently positive about the Jewish state. A former Jewish partner received a death threat simply because she was dating me. I quickly discovered that this projected fear was based on insecurity, not strength. It is a post-Holocaust mentality, largely unspoken, that only allows the most aggressive kind of Judaism to thrive and be heard. Sympathising with the Arabs is treachery of the worst kind and I am still accused of being a ‘kapo’, a collaborator with the enemy.

A Jewish family friend recently explained the widespread Jewish belief: ‘Oh well, they [the Palestinians] have a hard lot but it is their own Arab neighbours who are responsible for that because they should have given aid and found them a home.’ The fact that Israel occupies their home is apparently irrelevant. Former Haaretz editor David Landau told Condoleezza Rice in early 2008 that Israel would need to be ‘raped’ by the US to achieve a Middle East settlement – blunt, but undeniably true.

‘Israel is the child with glasses trying to succeed at school while living in a gang-infested part of town,’ wrote conservative American commentator Daniel Pipes on Israel’s sixtieth anniversary. Who knew that a nation with nuclear weapons, unqualified support from the world’s leading superpower and one of the strongest militaries in the world would feel so insecure? In fact, explained New York Jewish blogger (and an editor at Time.com) Tony Karon, ‘Zionism, contemporary Jewish nationalism – is unlikely to bring Israel peace, because of its failure, or inability, to accord full equality to the claims of others.’

The moral collapse of Israel is profound. According to a study released by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel last year, more than 50 per cent of Israelis said they wouldn’t live in the same building as Arabs. A former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu said in early 2008, one month after the murder of eight yeshiva students in Jerusalem, that ‘the life of one yeshiva boy is worth more than the lives of a thousand Arabs’. Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit called on the state, after Qassam rockets landed in Sderot, to ‘decide on a neighbourhood in Gaza and level it’. A religious member of parliament, Arieh Eldad, explained in May 2008 that ‘anyone who gives away Israeli territory, under Israel’s law, deserves the death penalty’. A study released in late 2007 found that, despite Arabs making up 20 per cent of the Israeli population, they are virtually absent from the media and rarely employed by media companies. A 2008 study by Israeli human rights group Yesh Din revealed that only 6 per cent of probes into offences supposedly committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians in the occupied territories bring indictments.

These kinds of statistics are relevant to energy security in the Middle East not least because, as I’ve argued, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians foreshadows Western attitudes to Arabs more generally, especially as competition for energy intensifies.

I’m often asked if I’m optimistic about the prospects of a more peaceful Middle East. Sadly, I am not – and the sinking feeling is only getting worse. Evidence for pessimism is everywhere. Even a quarter of Israelis polled by newspaper Yediot Aharonot in 2007 believed that Israel would not exist long-term. A group of former South African anti-apartheid activists visited the West Bank in July 2008. The delegation contained two Supreme Court judges, a former deputy minister, members of parliament, lawyers, writers and journalists. One, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, a former minister of health and defence, and current member of parliament, was shocked by what she saw. It was worse than life for blacks under apartheid, she said. ‘It is hard for me to describe what I am feeling,’ she whispered, ‘but I am encouraged to find that there are courageous people here.’ The sight of separate roads for Palestinians was particularly appalling: such things didn’t exist under apartheid.

This is why I’m pessimistic. The occupation is expanding in size, not declining. Haaretz lamented this in an editorial in late October 2007, arguing that the occupation has become invisible to the majority of Israelis. Israel ignores the Arab League’s peace initiative to offer ‘normal ties’ with all its 22 members. The nation’s hyper-developed manufacturers and military contractors are now exporting hardware for the petrified, post-September 11 world. Naomi Klein has written that ‘many of the country’s most successful entrepreneurs are using Israel’s status as a fortressed state, surrounded by furious enemies, as a kind of twenty-four hour a day showroom – a living example of how to enjoy relative safety amid constant war’. Spotting ‘terrorists’ has become an ever-growing industry. Even dedicated believers in the two-state solution, such as Sari Nusseibeh, the president of Al-Quds University, increasingly believes that a binational state is becoming the only option because of the Jewish state’s ongoing colonisation.

Without a resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, every other related issue – energy security, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and Western dependence on authoritarian rulers – will remain unresolved. A small ray of light was the release of a study in September 2007 by sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman that found attachment to Israel by young US Jews was decreasing. Less than half of Jews under the age of 35 believed that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy. This distancing from an ethnocentric view of the world is a healthy indication that Israel’s belligerence is negatively affecting the group it needs the most to survive.

I don’t wish to see Israel’s destruction nor any harm come to Jews, but I do demand the nation be viewed like any other and not wrapped in cotton wool or protected with a post-Holocaust shield.

Without this, the Middle East is destined to remain on its self-destructive path. In his book simply titled Oil, Matthew Yeomans writes that ‘from the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep, oil controls our lives’. He’s right, of course. But what price are we willing to pay for its seductive charms?

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney-based journalist who has written for various publications in Australia and overseas, including the Guardian, Nation, Haaretz, Sydney Morning Herald and Washington Post. He is the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution, both published by Melbourne University Press.
© Antony Loewenstein
193-summer 2008, p. 5

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