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Israeli energy fuels Hanukkah miracle

Recent developments have ruined one of Golda Meir’s favorite jokes. The former Israeli prime minister was known to quip: “Know why Jews don’t like Moses? For 40 years he leads them through the desert, and then he brings them to the only place in the Middle East without oil!”

It turns out Moses wasn’t so meshugge after all: Israel now boasts Saudi-sized reserves of oil and gas less than 100 miles off its coast.

The news of what may well become Israel’s largest single foreign investment ever came just in time for Hanukkah that celebrates the miraculous longevity of a single vessel of sacred oil for the golden menorah that stood in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple.

If successful, the reserves have the potential to transform Israel into a hydrocarbon giant, and maybe even a major exporter. Will Israel’s energy bonanza turn out to be a latter-day Hanukkah – “dedication” or “blessing” – for the beleaguered Jewish state, or will Palestine and Lebanon, which both have overlapping claims, only bring more conflict to a region in which everything from water to air is contested?

But for Israelis – even the secular sort – divine providence seems a plausible explanation for this amazing luck.

Only a few years ago, Israel had to rely on a single well to cover 70 percent its natural gas needs. That source was projected to dry up, well, just about now.

Egypt provided the difference in the country’s natural gas requirements, under a Hosni Mubarak-era deal that the current government in Cairo seems less inclined to continue.

Since the start of the Egyptian revolution, militants in the Sinai Peninsula have blown up the pipeline carrying Egyptian gas into Israel (and Jordan) just over 15 times. But Israel’s dependency on outside hydrocarbons might soon be over, thanks to an amazing string of discoveries in its exclusive economic zone, which stretches for 200 miles off its shores. In January 2009, an Israeli-American consortium made the world’s largest natural gas discovery for that year: a total extractible reserve of 8 trillion to 9 trillion cubic feet, roughly equivalent to two years’ worth of the total U.S. residential demand for natural gas. A few months later, Dalit field was found to contain another 500 billion cubic feet of natural gas.

But Israel really struck it rich in October 2010, when that same consortium discovered more than 16 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in Leviathan: the world’s biggest natural gas find in a decade.

By itself, Leviathan could provide Israel with all the natural gas it would need for the next 100 years.

On top of all that, shale oil reserves under Israel itself could total 250 billion barrels, according to a 2011 report from the London-based World Energy Council, ranking it third in the world behind China and the United States. Combined, Israel’s oil and gas reserves would be about equal to Saudi Arabia’s total energy reserves. Although the first drop of these presumed shale oil reserves has yet to be extracted, Canadian and Russian oil companies are falling over each other to offer their help in doing so.

As reversals of fortune go, this is miraculous enough to rival the original Hanukkah story.

Frank Jacobs is a London-based author and journalist. He writes about strange maps, intriguing borders and other cartographic curiosities. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.