It was in April 1955, at Israel’s seventh independence day celebration, that founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion issued perhaps his most famous dictum: The Jewish state’s future, he said, depended “not on what the goyim say” — that is, the nations of the world — “but on what the Jews do.”
If that was ever true — and Ben-Gurion was far too canny to believe his own rhetoric — it certainly hasn’t held up. In today’s interconnected world there are no independent players. Nations need each other for markets, credit, landing rights, raw materials, spare parts and countless other exchanges. They’re vulnerable to each others’ germs, material shortages, migratory pressures and cyber-punks. A bad wheat crop in Russia can spark a revolution in Tunisia and topple a regime in Egypt.
Heading into 2015, Israel and the Jewish communities around the world will be buffeted by forces that are beyond their control and essentially have nothing to do with them — yet will shape their destiny in unique and profound ways.
The biggest of these forces is the price of oil.
Over the past six months the price of crude oil has undergone one of its most traumatic adjustments in decades. From $114 per barrel last June, it’s fallen nearly in half to $59 per barrel in mid-December. It’s given a huge lift to the American economy, while sending the Russian ruble into a tailspin. It’s also wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy, which was already reeling from sanctions.
Why this has happened is complicated, and tells you a lot about the state of the world today. Why people think it’s happened may be even more important, because even perceptions can shift the global balance of power.
The basic cause is global oversupply. Increased stability and safer exports from oil-rich Libya and Iraqi Kurdistan are one factor. Another is brisk production from American shale and Canadian tar sand deposits, where new technologies became cost-effective over the past decade as China’s boom raised prices. Yet another is falling global demand, due to slow economies in Europe and now China. There’s too much oil and not enough buyers.
Normally, oversupply and falling prices are a cue for OPEC to cut production. But Saudi Arabia, which dominates OPEC as the world’s largest producer, has kept the taps open and let the price keep dropping. Experts say that’ s because the Saudis are alarmed at their declining share of the American market. They’re hoping a year or so of rock-bottom prices will drive some American shale producers out of business. Besides, cutting production has backfired on them in the past, reducing market share that they never regained.
And yet, the damage to Russia and Iran has been so dramatic that many observers around the world — including some senior politicians and respected pundits — are convinced the Saudis are colluding with Washington to drive the price down, in order to bring Russia and Iran to their knees. Both are under sanctions already, Russia because of its Ukraine mischief, Iran because of its nuclear project. Add to that the collusion of Russia and Iran in keeping the murderous Assad regime afloat in Syria, and Washington and Riyadh have every reason to want to cripple the two rogues by jamming their oil revenues. It almost doesn’t matter that it’s not true.
The biggest winner from the oil glut is President Obama. Between the humming U.S. economy, the Russian collapse and signs of new Iranian flexibility on the nuclear front, the president enters 2015 with more political feathers in his cap than he’s had in months, if not years.
It’s not clear how much this will help him with congressional Republicans. Many will dismiss his successes as dumb luck. The GOP is divided between those who want to govern, which requires finding common ground with the White House, and those who just want to say no — whether for ideological reasons or to discredit Democrats in 2016. But much of the public will give the president credit for the success of his policies. That will put pressure on Congress to work with him. And if Republicans resist, it will make it that much easier for him to work around them. The price of oil has given him a mighty tailwind. His exercise of power — the mobilizing of sanctions — wasn’t solely responsible for bringing down the ruble, but the collapse of the ruble has given him new power.
The biggest losers, obviously, are Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, along with a handful of other petrobullies like Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.
Many others will be caught in the crosswinds, though. And nowhere will those winds blow more strongly than in Jerusalem. Israel’s diplomatic and security environment is in extreme flux, what with the Palestinian statehood bid to the United Nations Security Council, the renewed violence on the West Bank, the rising momentum of the boycott and sanctions movement and the growing impatience of Europe, which is still Israel’s largest trading partner. Too many pieces are in motion for the situation to remain static.
Washington and Riyadh may not have teamed up to crash the Russian and Iranian economies this fall, but now that the deed is done, they’re sure to use their new clout to tackle some new challenges.
The Obama administration is working to stall any further pressure on Israel until after the March 17 Knesset elections. The Palestinians can’t be held off much longer than that, though. Neither can the Europeans. In very short order, Jerusalem will face a “diplomatic tsunami,” in the words of the newest recruit to the Israeli peace camp, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Lieberman told a closed business forum at Tel Aviv University December 23 that Israel urgently needs to seize the diplomatic initiative before the storm hits. Otherwise, he said, it will end up like Russia, isolated, sanctioned and economically battered.
His solution is a “regional peace agreement.” In current Israeli political discourse, that’s code for a settlement with the Palestinians under the aegis of the Saudis and the Arab League. That’s roughly the same plan that Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and a brigade of former IDF generals, Mossad and Shin Bet directors and police commissioners have been calling for since the summer.
As long as he’s in office, Prime Minister Netanyahu will be working furiously to head off any such initiative. He’ll mobilize an army of American Jewish organizations to descend on Washington and demand that the administration leave Israel alone. They’ll respond loudly and enthusiastically, as they always have. If Netanyahu is returned to office after the election, they’ll keep it up for months. If he loses, a new Israeli government will take office that will throw itself urgently behind the initiative, and Israel’s friends here will end up looking very silly.
At that point, it won’t matter what the Jews say, but what the nations do.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Why Israel Cannot Ignore the World Any Longer
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).