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NYTimes: An Ordinary Israel By ROGER COHEN
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Posted on October 15, 2009
NEW YORK ؟ Is Israel just a nation among nations?

On one level, it is indeed an ordinary place. People curse the traffic, follow their stocks, Blackberry, go to the beach and pay their mortgages. Stroll around in the prosperous North Tel Aviv suburbs and you find yourself California dreaming.

On another, it's not. More than 60 years after the creation of the modern state, Israel has no established borders, no constitution, no peace. Born from exceptional horror, the Holocaust, it has found normality elusive.

The anxiety of the diaspora Jews has ceded not to tranquility but to another anxiety. The escape from walls has birthed new walls. The annihilation psychosis has not disappeared but taken new form.

For all Israel's successes ؟ it is the most open, creative and dynamic society in the region ؟ this is a gnawing failure. Can anything be done about it?

Perhaps a good place to start that inquiry is by noting that Israel does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism.

I understand this: Israel is a small country whose neighbors are enemies or cold bystanders. But I worry when Israel makes a fetish of its exceptional status. It needs to deal with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.

The Holocaust represented a quintessence of evil. But it happened 65 years ago. Its perpetrators are dead or dying. A Holocaust prism may be distorting. History illuminates ؟ and blinds.

These reflections stirred on reviewing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to the U.N. last month. The first 30 paragraphs were devoted to an inflammatory conflation of Nazi Germany (the word "Nazi" appears five times), modern Iran, Al Qaeda (a Sunni ideology foreign to Shiite Iran) and global terrorism, with lonely and exceptional Israel standing up against them all.

Here's Netanyahu's summary of the struggle of our age: "It pits civilization against barbarism, the 21st century against the 9th century, those who sanctify life against those who glorify death."

That's facile, resonant ؟ and unhelpful. Sure, it's an outlook that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's unacceptable Holocaust denial and threats comfort. (Several Iranian leaders have also spoken of accepting any deal on Israel that the Palestinians agree to.)

There's another way of looking at the ongoing struggle in the Middle East ؟ less dramatic and more accurate.

That is to see it as a fight for a different balance of power ؟ and possibly greater stability ؟ between a nuclear-armed Israel (an estimated 80 to 200 never-acknowledged weapons), a proud but uneasy Iran and an increasingly sophisticated and aware (if repressed) Arab world.

Some of Israel's enemies contest its very existence, however powerless they are to end it. But the death-cult terrorists-versus-reasonable-Israelis paradigm falls short. There are various civilizations in the Middle East, whose attitudes toward religion and modernism vary, but who all quest for some accommodation between them.

One casualty of this view, of course, is Israeli exceptionalism. The Jewish state becomes more like any other nation fighting for influence and treasure. I think President Obama, himself talking down American exceptionalism, is trying to nudge Israel toward a more prosaic, realistic self-image.

Hence the U.S. abstention last month at a U.N. nuclear assembly vote calling on all states in the Middle East to "accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons" (N.P.T.) and create a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East ؟ an idea Obama administration officials have supported in line with a nuclear disarmament agenda.

A shift is perceptible in the decades-old tacit American endorsement of Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal. This is logical. To deal effectively with the nuclear program of Iran, an N.P.T. member, while ignoring the nuclear status of non-N.P.T. Israel is to invite accusations of double standards. President Obama doesn't like them.

I'd say there's a tenable case for Israel ending its nuclear exceptionalism, coming clean on its arsenal and joining the N.P.T. as part of any U.S.-endorsed regional security arrangement that stops Iran short of weaponization.

It's also worth noting the sensible tone of Defense Secretary Robert Gates ؟ in flagrant contrast to Netanyahu. "The only way you end up not having a nuclear capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened," Gates says.

In other words, as I've long argued, Iran makes rational decisions. Rather than invoking the Holocaust ؟ a distraction ؟ Israel should view Iran coolly, understand the hesitancy of Tehran's nuclear brinksmanship, and see how it can gain from U.S.-led diplomacy.

Cut the posturing and deal with reality. This can be painful ؟ as with Justice Richard Goldstone's recent U.N. report finding that both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants committed possible crimes against humanity during Israel's military operations in Gaza.

But it's also instructive. Goldstone is a measured man ؟ I've known him a long time. The Israeli response to his findings strikes me as an example of the blinding effect of exceptionalism unbound. Ordinary nations have failings.

The Middle East has changed. So must Israel. "Never again" is a necessary but altogether inadequate way of dealing with the modern world.

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