Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
April 23, 2010 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM — For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his people are not traumatized by some wild delusion. No, there are facts: the rise of Iran, the fierce projection of Iran’s proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, and the rockets that have been fired by them.

Netanyahu is firm in his core self-image as the guarantor of threatened Israeli security. Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza, led only, in his view, to the insecurity of life beneath a rocket threat.

The question he poses himself, contemplating the West Bank, is how to stop this happening a third time.

To enter Israel is to pass through a hall of mirrors. A nation exerting complete military dominance in the West Bank becomes one that, under an almost unimaginable peace accord, might be menaced from there.

A nation whose army and arsenal are without rival in the Middle East becomes one facing daily existential threat. A nation whose power has grown steadily over decades relative to its scattered enemies becomes one whose future is somehow less secure than ever.

It’s not easy to parse fact from fiction, justifiable anxiety from self-serving angst, in this pervasive Israeli narrative. I arrived on Independence Day, the nation’s 62nd birthday. Blue and white flags fluttered from cars on the superhighways. A million festive picnickers were out. “If a war takes place, we will win,” the chief of the Israel Defense Forces assured them. Did annihilation anguish really spice the barbecue?

I guess so. The threat has morphed since 1948 — from Arab armies to Palestinian militants to Islamic jihadists — but not the Israeli condition. The nation “wallows in a sense of existential threat that has only grown with time,” the daily Haaretz commented. Netanyahu, in a 20-minute interview, told me of “the physical and psychological reality” of a nation whose experience is that “concessions lead to insecurity.”

Part of the insecurity right now stems from the troubles with Israel’s ultimate guarantor, the United States. President Obama, for all his assurances about unbending American commitment, has left Israelis with a feeling of alienation, a sense he does not understand or care enough. Has he not visited two nearby Muslim states — Turkey and Egypt — while snubbing Israel?

I think what is really bothering Israelis, the root of the troubles, is that Obama is not buying the discourse, the narrative.

Instead of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with little Israel against the jihadists, he’s talking of how a festering Middle East conflict ends up “costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.” Instead of Iran, Iran, Iran — the refrain here — he’s saying Iran, yes, but not at the expense of Palestine. Instead of Israeli security alone, he’s talking of “the vital national security interests of the United States” and their link to Israeli actions.

This amounts to a sea change. I don’t know if it will box Israel into a defensive corner or open new avenues, but I do know an uncritical U.S. embrace of Israel has led nowhere. For now, Israeli irritation is clear.

Before meeting Netanyahu, I spoke with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. “We are the ones suffering most in terms of blood and treasure,” he told me, reprising the Obama line. “This is the difference, we are the ones that have to live through an agreement and survive afterward. Of course we want peace but not at the price of our existence.”

He dismissed as “totally false” the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict feeds an environment inimical to U.S. interests. On the contrary, he said, “We pay the price for defending U.S. values in this area.”

For Ayalon, the proximity talks with the Palestinians that the Obama administration is struggling to revive are a “waste of time” and should be replaced by direct talks without preconditions. As for Obama’s demands, believed to include a complete Israeli building freeze in Jerusalem, Ayalon said, “Any demand without a quid pro quo is a mistake. Why should the Palestinians negotiate if others negotiate for them?”

So here we are, 62 years on, negotiating about negotiations whose prospects of leading anywhere seem fantastically remote. I think Ayalon’s right about getting to the table, but peace involves embracing risk over fear, no getting around that, and with the Iranian nuclear program rumbling, Israelis look more risk-averse than I’ve ever seen them. Life’s not bad in affluent, barrier-bordered Israel even if threats loom.

The prime minister insists that he is ready to move forward, that he will not use the Iran threat as a delaying tactic, and that he and Obama respect each other’s intelligence.

What is imperative for him right now is that the United States and Israel talk to each other.

But about what exactly? The trauma of 9/11 bound the Israeli and American narratives. They have now begun to diverge with putative Palestine hanging in limbo between them.


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