Hooray, They Hate Me

This weekend, Avigdor Lieberman, who announced his resignation from the cabinet, supplied fresh evidence of the sense of victimhood underlying the way the conflict is understood.

Like Mottel the son of Peysi the cantor, who evades his responsibilities with the declaration, "Hooray, I am an orphan," Israelis sometimes tell themselves, "Hooray, I am hated," thus rationalizing their refusal to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. The hero of Shalom Aleichem's book exploits his status as an orphan in order to misbehave and create a worldview that allows him to abandon his studies and prayers while avoiding punishment. The Israeli right wing, meanwhile, observes reality through the lenses of someone who has been the object of Arab hatred. This gives the right wing a pretext for clinging to its positions, if not hardening them.

This weekend, Avigdor Lieberman, who announced his resignation from the cabinet, supplied fresh evidence of the sense of victimhood underlying the way the conflict is understood. If Yisrael Beiteinu represented a minority opinion, one could view it as a marginal party with negligible power. But the conceptual underpinning of Lieberman's views are shared by increasingly large segments of Israel's Jewish population, even if they do not belong to his movement.

His faith holds that there is no chance of reaching an arrangement with the Palestinians because their hatred for Israel is infinite. If Israel withdraws from Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians will attack there from Qalqilyah and Nablus. If Israel helps establish a Palestinian state, Israel's Arabs will rise up and demand an end to the state's Zionist identity. If it reaches an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel will find itself facing the ruthlessness of Hamas, which will take over the West Bank.

That is how a majority of Israeli Jews think, according to polls conducted in the past few months. The Palestinian response to Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip reinforced their basic fear that "the Arabs" have not really come to terms with the state's existence, and that if the opportunity to get rid of Israel or destroy it fell into their lap they would jump at the chance. That is the fundamental feeling shaping most Israeli Jews' attitude on the conflict, even those on the left.

The Qassam rockets in the South, as has been demonstrated so clearly in the past several days, and the Katyushas and missiles in the North, as was demonstrated so painfully in the Second Lebanon War, confirm to Israeli Jews their fundamental belief that there is no partner on the other side (which in their eyes also includes Israeli Arabs). The left is (to a large extent) distinguished from the right (to a large extent) by its willingness to reach an arrangement based on strict security considerations that will reduce the existential threat posed by the continuing hatreds of "the Arabs" and of the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East.

The polls thus point to a significant strengthening of the right on the one hand (an expression of the basic anxiety over the threat), and a readiness for territorial compromises on the other (echoing the pragmatic approach).

Lieberman thus touches a nerve when he aggravates the existential anxiety of Israel's Jewish public regarding the endless threat posed by Arabs simply by being Arabs. Israeli Jews accept the conflict as a heavenly decree, as a reality that cannot be changed because of the character and beliefs of "the Arabs." This approach allows Israel's Jews to ignore their own contribution to the creation and expansion of the confrontation.

The approach includes the settlement enterprise, which created an intolerable provocation in the eyes of the Palestinians and made it impossible to view territory as a major bargaining chip toward an agreement. It includes the miserable timing of assassinations and collective punishment, as well as violated understandings supposedly reached with the Palestinian leadership to tone down the conflict. It includes the violations of promises to ease the Palestinians' suffering and make good-will gestures toward them.

Israel's Jews, even those in the center and left, are increasingly captive to the idea that, whatever the causes and ramifications of the conflict, there is no choice but to treat Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular as the eternal enemy. It is easy to be swept into this atmosphere - the Palestinians provide incentives for it - but this does not account for the self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who hold this belief present the very idea of reaching an arrangement with the enemy as mere sleight of hand.