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What is it about Israelis that makes them smile when Palestinians rejoice at the misfortunes of the Jews?

What is it about the people of this country that gives them a feeling of validation when newscasters describe gunmen of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza firing in the air and handing out baklava and candies to celebrate word of Ariel Sharon's stroke?

What is this masochistic reveling in the darkly ironic and the painfully ambivalent, the perverse surge of pleasure in the sense that all is somehow right in the world when the childish behavior of a few members of the other side confirms one's deepest fears and, yes, unspoken racism.

In the code that is the latter-day Hebrew language, the phrase "dancing on the rooftops" has come to herald this phenomenon. It harkens back to the 1991 Gulf War, when sizable numbers of Palestinians as well as Israeli Arabs actually did dance on rooftops and elsewhere to greet the Scud ballistic missiles that Saddam Hussein sent crashing into Israeli cities.

This is not to suggest that the celebrations do not occur, or that they are somehow magically justified by the occupation, or by perceptions of Israeli intransigence and bellicosity.

This is to suggest that our smile has everything to do with our profound - if often subconscious - need to feel superior to the people with whom we cannot seem to make peace. This is to suggest that we want the Arabs to act like the Arabs who we find it convenient to believe they really are: unwilling to abide us, impatient for our departure, uninterested in accommodation, desperate for our demise.

Certainly there is no greater audience anywhere else in the world for the carefully calibrated Jew-hate of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For a people haunted by the world's indifference to the slaughter of European Jewry, hearing someone say out loud that Israel should be "wiped off the map" is oddly comforting. At last, we think, someone is saying in a clear voice what millions are truly thinking.

We savor every syllable of Ahmadinejad's Holocaust anthem, when he drones on about how the West has "fabricated a myth under the name `Massacre of the Jews,' and they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves."

Let the world see, we say to ourselves, not aloud. Let the world know. As if that ever made a difference.

At least, we think, let the world know we're finally a part of the West.

What is this illness we have? The Israeli far-right has a chronic form, the center suffers from the recurrent acute version, and the left spends so much time and energy swallowing it, sublimating it, dressing it up in other clothing, that it is clearly dogged by it as well.

What makes it so hard to treat? Because there is so much in it for us. We enjoy it way too much to think seriously about giving it up.

That smile of ours, after all, is saying much more than "I suffer, therefore I am." It's saying "I told you so."

If it is so pleasurable, what makes it a sickness at all? The answer is that it causes blindness, an inability to see the suffering of others - especially when we ourselves have had a hand in it.

We can watch newsfilm for hours as masked RPG-toting Palestinians - some as young as 4 years old - burn the Israeli flag with glee. We sit transfixed as rank upon rank of veiled women chant for our annihilation.

But our patience for the everyday - the pregnant woman who was en route to Hadassah hospital when she was turned away at a checkpoint, the family cut in half and cut off from their fields by the West Bank fence - has run its course. We change the channel without a thought.

In the end, the sickness may be the need in every one of us to repeat the mantra that for decades has drained the hard right of its guilt: They don't want to make peace after all. We need give them nothing. More than that - we must not give them a thing.

But what if this illness is not, in fact, terminal? What if there's a way to beat it?

Perhaps we can start by giving Arabs what they deserve - giving them what we ourselves deserve from them: the presumption of humanity until proven otherwise.