By Thomas L. Friedman, May 17, 2011
Reading the headlines from the Middle East these days — Christians and Muslims clashing in Egypt, Syria attempting to crush its democracy rebellion and Palestinians climbing over fences into Israel — you get the sense of a region where the wheels could really start to come off.
In such a moment, President Obama has to show the same decisiveness he showed in tracking down Osama bin Laden. A useful analogy for this moment comes from climate science, where a popular motto says: Given how much climate change is already baked into our future, the best we can do now is manage the unavoidable and avoid the unmanageable.
In Middle East terms, the “unmanageable” we have to avoid is another war between Israel and any of its neighbors. The “unavoidable” we have to manage is dealing with what is certain to be a much more unstable Arab world, sitting atop the world’s largest oil reserves. The strategy we need is a serious peace policy combined with a serious energy policy.
Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel is always wondering why his nation is losing support and what the world expects of a tiny country surrounded by implacable foes. I can’t speak for the world, but I can speak for myself. I have no idea whether Israel has a Palestinian or Syrian partner for a secure peace that Israel can live with. But I know this: With a more democratic and populist Arab world in Israel’s future, and with Israel facing the prospect of having a minority of Jews permanently ruling over a majority of Arabs — between Israel and the West Bank, which could lead to Israel being equated with apartheid South Africa all over the world — Israel needs to use every ounce of its creativity to explore ways to securely cede the West Bank to a Palestinian state.
I repeat: It may not be possible. But Netanyahu has not spent his time in office using Israel’s creativity to find ways to do such a deal. He has spent his time trying to avoid such a deal — and everyone knows it. No one is fooled.
Israel is in a dangerous situation. For the first time in its history, it has bad relations with all three regional superpowers — Turkey, Iran and Egypt — plus rapidly eroding support in Europe. America is Israel’s only friend today. These strains are not all Israel’s fault by any means, especially with Iran, but Israel will never improve ties with Egypt, Turkey and Europe without a more serious effort to safely get out of the West Bank.
The only way for Netanyahu to be taken seriously again is if he risks some political capital and actually surprises people. Bibi keeps hinting that he is ready for painful territorial compromises involving settlements. Fine, put a map on the table. Let’s see what you’re talking about. Or how about removing the illegal West Bank settlements built by renegade settler groups against the will of Israel’s government. Either move would force Israel’s adversaries to take Bibi seriously and would pressure Palestinians to be equally serious.
Absent that, it’s just silly for us to have Netanyahu addressing the U.S. Congress when he needs to be addressing Palestinians down the street. And it is equally silly for the Palestinians to be going to the United Nations for a state when they need to be persuading Israelis why a Hamas-Fatah rapprochement is in their security interest.
As for managing the unavoidable, well, Obama just announced that he was opening up more federal areas for oil exploration, as Republicans have demanded. Great: Let’s make America even more dependent on an energy resource, the price of which is certain to go up as the world’s population increases and the greatest reserves of which lie beneath what is now the world’s most politically unstable region.
Frankly, I have no problem with more oil drilling, as long as it is done under the highest environmental standards. I have no problem with more nuclear power, if you can find a utility ready to put up the money. My problem is with an energy policy that focuses exclusively on oil drilling and nuclear power. That is not an energy policy. That is a policy for campaign donations. It will have no impact at the pump.
A real energy policy is a system. It has to start with a national renewable energy standard that requires every utility to build up their use of renewable energy — wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, bio — to 20 percent of their total output by 2020. This would be accompanied with higher auto mileage standards and higher national appliance and building efficiency standards. All these standards would then be reinforced with a price on carbon. That is how you get higher energy prices but lower energy bills, because efficiency improvements mean everyone uses less.
We are going to have to raise taxes. Why not a carbon tax that also reduces energy consumption, drives innovation, cleans the air and reduces our dependence on the Middle East?
We don’t want the Arab democracy rebellions to stop, but no one can predict how they will end. The smart thing for us and Israel to do is avoid what we can’t manage, and manage what we can’t avoid. Right now we’re doing neither.