Oil: Israel’s Covert Efforts
To Secure Oil Supplies
By Zvi Alexander
Gefen Books, 296 pages, $19.95.
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For most of his life, Zvi Alexander, a man with the guts of a gambler, was engaged in that most characteristic of Israeli pursuits: creating facts on the ground. Except in his case, these facts were holes dug deep under the ground, where, he wagered, bubbling reserves of oil might lie.
Alexander, one of the leading figures in Israel’s oil industry, has written his memoirs. The book, misleadingly titled “Oil: Israel’s Covert Efforts To Secure Oil Supplies,” is not, in fact, about what Israel actually did to acquire that indispensable resource, which would have made for a compelling book. For example, it spends no time on how the Shah’s Iran secretly sneaked oil to Israel up until the 1979 revolution.
Instead, we get the life story of an entrepreneur, fueled more by the hunt than by any Zionist motives. Alexander’s perspective offers not a glimpse into how the Jewish state kept its cars and factories moving, but rather into one man’s wheeling and dealing. He is a schemer, a bully and a mildly corrupt speculator, who travels the globe looking for ground to drill and for investors to pay for the drilling. And all to no avail. At the end of his journey, through Ethiopia and Gabon, the North Sea and Burma, no pot of black gold sits waiting.
Like most vanity projects, Alexander’s book oozes with unnecessary minutiae and strange digressions (including, for reasons too complex to explain, a pinup photo of Anna Nicole Smith). But there is no doubt that the voice here is Alexander’s own (unlike the plastic-wrapped memoirs of a Donald Trump or Jack Welch). He is bitter. He settles scores. He is petty at times and self-aggrandizing at others. And above all, he always sounds Israeli — sure of his rightness and confident in the power of his own will.
When Alexander first entered Israel’s oil industry in 1958, the country had already found the one skimpy oilfield, Heletz, that would constitute the entirety of its domestic resource. This desert was not going to bloom. And to his credit, Alexander realized this sooner than others.
He also had some radical free-market ideas about how Israel should transform its oil exploration efforts. For one thing, he thought the government had no business being involved at all. It was too risky and demanding an endeavor to rely purely on Israeli resources. He wanted foreign investment — oil companies from Texas to Oklahoma that would bring their money and expertise to Israel’s meager enterprise. In a country with such a socialist-leaning economy as Israel had in the 1950s and ’60s, where the government controlled most of the major industries, from agriculture to housing construction, these ideas were no less than blasphemous.
But when he was asked, in 1965, to liquidate the Israel National Oil Company, a failed government-backed oil exploration effort, Alexander saw a chance to put those ideas into practice. Instead of dismantling the company, as he’d been asked, within a few months, underneath government radar, Alexander managed to revive it using foreign funds. “Start drilling as soon as possible,” he was advised by a friend. “When the drill bit turns in the hole it is very difficult to stop it.”
With backing from American oilmen, Alexander and the commandeered INOC began the company’s first exploration on Israeli land. And although never officially acknowledging the INOC’s existence (and allocating it no funding from the state budget), the Israeli government indeed came to accept Alexander’s coup once the bit was in the ground.
The book focuses mainly on the next nine years, during which Alexander ran his renegade INOC. After the Israeli field turned up dry, he began looking elsewhere for prospects. He would eventually bid on plots in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and Gabon, where he bribed shady officials (“par for the course,” he writes) to smooth the process. He spent much time in Africa during the pivotal period following independence, but this account doesn’t offer anything more insightful than this typical apercu: “Ghanaians are lovely people who smile and laugh a lot.”
Alexander’s adventures in Africa, as well as in other oil fields, turned up very little in terms of oil. But the success was in the method, one that put him in the capitalistic avant-garde of the Jewish state. Working with very few resources, Alexander would find an oil field he wanted to explore, make a bid and then collect investors to pay the price. In this sense he was a kind of pioneer, bursting socialist Israeli taboos and laying the groundwork for the venture capitalists and high-tech sector that flourished in 1990s Israel. (It’s no mystery why Bibi Netanyahu has a prominent blurb on the cover.)
The persona that emerges in these pages is a far cry from the new Jew envisioned by the Zionist founders. Alexander, a man with an ego the size of the Negev, is almost the opposite of the collective-minded, nationally spirited individual the state hoped to forge. (When he meets with a prospective German investor — a known antisemite, a funder of Nazi propaganda during World War II — Alexander sees no obstacle to business. He is not selling “a Jewish deal,” he writes, “but an oil deal.”) In the last paragraph of the book, Alexander nails it when he admits that throughout his life, he saw himself as a “one-man army.” Not a bad attitude to have when you’re exploring for oil. A long as you don’t have a whole country of one-man armies.
Gal Beckerman is a freelance writer who is currently composing a history of the Soviet Jewry Movement, to be published by Houghton Mifflin.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman