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Time for Jews To Abandon the Old Foundation Myth of Israel?

Israel must abandon its myth of unquestionable benevolence if there's to be any hope for peace.

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Even when he turned to "the need for us to recognize their [Palestinian] rights," Netanyahu still projected the whole picture through the eyes of the myth of innocence and existential threat: "We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives." "We cannot be expected to agree to a Palestinian state without ensuring that it is demilitarized. This is crucial to the existence of Israel. … Without this, sooner or later, we will have another Hamastan."

Then there was the insistence on the seemingly innocent right of "natural growth" in the settlements, an appeal for the return of Gilad Shalit and the closing plea that "if our neighbors [will] only work for peace, we can achieve peace."

The root of every problem, and thus the source of every solution, was still placed outside the Jewish community, among the Gentiles, the " goyim."

This myth is as old as Zionism itself. In the essay that set the movement in motion, "Self-Emancipation" (1881), Leo Pinsker told the Jews that they would always be mistreated by the goyim because everyone fears, and thus persecutes, homeless people.

Later Zionist theorists set forth other explanations of anti-Jewish prejudice. But most agreed that the Jews would be victimized, through no fault of their own, as long as they lived among the goyim.

Pinsker said more, though: His own people were to blame, because they would not acknowledge the permanent enmity and inhumanity of the goyim. "You are contemptible, because you have no real self-esteem and no national self-respect," he wrote. Pinsker's chastising voice has echoed loudly through 130 years of Zionist thinking, casting self-doubt and sometimes even a sense of shame.

It must have echoed loudly in Netanyahu's mind as he pondered his response to the Obama administration's new pressures upon him. He has built his career as a symbol of the self-esteem Israeli Jews gained by showing their strength. If he simply knuckled under to the Americans, he might easily trigger enough doubt and shame in his followers to bring his political downfall.

To still the doubts and fend off the shame, he had to offer the full Israeli myth, with its three interlocking, mutually reinforcing themes: Our enemies threaten our very existence; We are wholly innocent, having done nothing at all to evoke such enmity; We will maintain our self-esteem and self-respect by inflicting enough defeats on our enemies to prove to them, and to ourselves, our indomitable strength.

So the Palestinians get no part of Jerusalem, no hint of a right of return, no freeze on settlements and a vaguely defined state at some future date, but with no army, no control of their air space, no right to sign treaties unless Israel approves, and (it would seem) other unspecified limitations to be dictated by Israel as negotiations proceed.

Of course Netanyahu knows full well that Israel can show its vaunted strength only as long as the United States pays the bill. He could not simply bite the hand that feeds him $2.775 billion a year in military aid. So he committed himself to a "vision" of "two free peoples living side by side," hedged in by all the limitations that the foundational myth requires.

While the question of whether to pursue a two-state solution is apparently settled, the larger questions remain: Will Jews in Israel, and those around the world who care about Israel, continue to build Jewish life on the same old foundational myth? Or will the changes in policy open up room for a discussion of deeper changes in the myth itself?

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