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Israel and the Palestinians Through the Looking Glass

The myths that underpin the failure of American policy in the Middle East.

| Thu May. 26, 2011 1:11 PM PDT

As it happens, however, the need for an enemy, and so for an ongoing conflict, isn't restricted to the political right or the settlers. "Our enemies have made us one, and, thus united, we suddenly discover our strength" Theodore Herzl wrote in Zionism's founding tract, "The Jews' State." And perceptive Israeli commentators have been asking for years what would hold Israeli Jews together if they had no common Arab or Palestinian enemy. That is still "the defining question" for all Israelis, according to Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset: "Can we continue to exist without a perennial adversary, without being victims of persecution?"

Sadly, the answer for most Israelis seems to be: no. A prominent Jewish columnist in the Jerusalem Post said it best: "Israelis get mad when you tell them we don't have to keep going to war, that we're strong enough to deter our enemies… People don't want to hear anything about possibilities for peace… All they want to hear is ein breira, we have no choice, it's either fight or die."

Israeli political life suffers from "a real obsession," according to the editors of Israel's most respected newspaper, Haaretz, "a sense that we are constantly under attack.. an insanity of persecution."

That's an old story, of course. "Israel's position today is similar to its position after the wars of 1948 and of 1967," an editorial in Haaretz noted: "The potential for negotiations was there, but the [political] cost was considered too high. Now, too, maintaining the status quo appears to be preferable to making changes that Israelis perceive as threatening, even if they do not necessarily pose a genuine danger."

The recent Hamas-Fatah reconciliation gave Israelis a new imaginary danger to worry about. The news of Palestinian unity launched a verbal tsunami in Israel, a flood of warnings that a far-right theocratic ideology might easily take control of a Palestinian state. President Obama fed that fear when he said "Hamas has been and is an organization that has resorted to terror; that has refused to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. It is not a partner for a significant, realistic peace process."

"Israel obviously cannot be asked to negotiate with a government that is backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda," Netanyahu responded.

It's just another case of Israelis staring into that mirror. Hamas has, in fact, been moving steadily toward a form of secular nationalism and greater political moderation. Its government in Gaza is busy fending off threats from the true theocrats of the Muslim right, who despise Hamas. The rare volleys of Hamas rockets that now come into Israel are triggered by and responses to Israeli attacks.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been saying for years that he and his party are absolutely willing to accept a two-state solution—implicitly accepting the permanent existence of Israel—as long as a majority of Palestinians approve it. Meshaal now speaks of "peace" rather than merely "truce" and views the infamous Hamas charter, calling for the destruction of Israel, as no longer relevant.

When it comes to the all-important question of recognition, it's Israel that refuses to recognize Hamas as a legitimate party or the Palestinians' right to be a democratic state and choose their own government. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been doing exactly what it accuses Hamas of doing—opening the door to increasingly reactionary, racist, and theocratic laws. "Public opinion polls point to increasing extremism, bordering on racism, in Jews' opinion of Arabs," as Haaretz has noted, so "it's no wonder there is no public pressure on the government to advance the peace process."

Israel is fast coming under the sway of far-right theocrats, and "ever more Israelis are infected by the symptoms of Messianic thinking: 'We are right, and the whole world is wrong; hence we must no longer listen to anybody,'" as one Israeli Jewish columnist observed.

Then there's the upcoming vote in the U.N. General Assembly in September, when Palestine is expected to be granted full status as a nation. In his speech, Obama echoed the Israeli line that the Palestinian push for recognition there will harm chances for peace. In fact the vote would promote the peace process by pushing a nay-saying Israel closer to what it now fears most: finally being forced by irresistible world opinion to negotiate peace rather than become a pariah state.

There's one last point that Obama and American public discourse get absolutely backwards: the idea that being a friend of Israel's means endorsing its popular narrative, which offers no more truth than Alice's looking-glass. Real friends don't enable their friends to engage in self-destructive behavior. Real friends wouldn't let them get so drunk on a delusional story that they have no compunctions about driving what might otherwise be a peace process off a cliff.

The US has the power to push the Israelis away from that cliff and head them in a new direction. There's real truth in the common Israeli joke that the US is "the eight-ton elephant that can sit down anywhere it wishes."

Yes, Obama can put his tuches anywhere he wants. If he ever feels politically safe enough, he just might put it on the table. Then, Israel might have to leave the looking-glass world and agree to start genuine peace negotiations.

Ira Chernus is a TomDispatch regular and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing about Israel, Palestine, and the US on his blog. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Chernus discusses the strange, looking-glass world of Israeli-Palestinian nonnegotiations, click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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