BEIT SHEMESH, Israel -- There was something wrong with the air here the day President Obama hosted Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. There was a bottom-heavy grip to the heat, the air almost too thick to breathe, as though it had to be forced down, like medicine.
In other places, this freight in the weather is the kind that announces a monsoon, or an earthquake. Not here. Here it was murder that was in the air. It just hadn't happened yet.
The stage had been set for days. Israel's most influential former chief rabbi had ushered in the week with a message about the Palestinians that hinted at expulsion and flirted with genocide.
Soon after, the head of Hamas' political bureau told an interviewer that the upcoming peace talks would come to nothing. "I tell my people that the Palestinian state and Palestinian rights will not be accomplished through this peace process," Khaled Meshal said, "but will be accomplished by force, and it will be accomplished by resistance."
The army and the police would later say that there were no special alerts in place for attacks against civilians. As if any were needed.
In fact, none of it was needed. Nor is it ever. Not when there is any threat of peace.
There is something in the air here that militates against peace itself. It is more than mere tribalism, although tribalism is a part. It is more than past experience, although history's lessons have been almost uniform in their bitterness.
What it is constitutes something akin to a religion of its own, rooted in fundamentalism and terrifying focus, not an unusual circumstance in this cradle of monotheism and mania.
Where it comes to peace talks, this new religion has an oddly unifying effect on extremists, whether Jewish, Muslim, or even Born-Again Christian. None may believe in a Holy Land shared by Israeli and Palestinian states, but just to be on the safe side, a number of them are going to make sure that it doesn't happen.
What is all this, really? Much too much of it has nothing to do with ideology, God's promises or promises to God. For Jews and for Palestinians, whom history and tragedy have often and profoundly robbed of the sense and the substance of manhood, much too much of it has to do with the need to prove oneself a man.
Even at the price of thinking like a 12-year-old boy.
Real men, this religion preaches, don't talk Mideast peace. Real men do not compromise. Real men neither bend nor relinquish, they concede no error, correct no course.
It is a religion whose first tenet is that a peace that does not conform to the vision of the extremist is no peace at all. It is a religion which effectively believes that there can be no peace. My way or the die way.
Thus it is, that Avigdor Lieberman chose a festive pre-Rosh Hashanah gathering of his Yisrael Beiteinu -- perhaps the only Israeli political party that looks down on and dislikes native-born Israelis nearly as much as it dislikes and looks down on Arabs -- to declare that a U.S.-brokered peace with the Palestinians is "unattainable, not in the course of this year, and not in the course of a generation."
Lieberman and Meshal, Eli Yishai and Mahmoud Zahar, all share more than just this religion of negation. They are bullies. They bully their peoples into believing that compromise is immoral and that the highest form of courage is the frank pursuit of violence.
On the eve of the White House meeting, my Palestinian-American colleague Ray Hanania wrote that peace would depend on real courage from both Netanyahu and Abbas. "Do they have the courage to stand up to the fanatics in their own community and confront the growing anger from the moderates who are pulled apart by violence, failure, and the actions of the other side?" he asked.
Many years ago, a Hasidic figure, now largely forgotten, taught that a human being -- a real person, male or female, a mensch -- is made with a Gibor (hero) on one shoulder and a Tzaddik (righteous one) on the other. The first takes initiative, takes responsibility, takes chances, the second taking the long view, the broad view, tempering justice with wisdom.
By tradition, the concept of the Gibor is more complex than its English equivalent. True heroes, the Talmud says, resist, conquer their own passions, for the sake of doing what is truly righteous.
In the end, what in the world are the extremists really after?
They are after your humanity. They are betting that when the smoke clears after the damage caused by settlement expansion and drive-by killings, moderates will have surrendered to apathy, despair, or vengeful rage, and the extremist will then have won.
In the long run, though, the one thing that bullies cannot defeat, is courage.
For this peace to have any chance, two peoples, the Jewish and the Palestinian, here and abroad, must take a stand against their own extremists. To reclaim their own independence. Our independence.
It may well make more sense, in the present reality, to put your money on bloodshed. "I hope that one of my personal rules about the Middle East is proved wrong," Thomas Friedman wrote as the talks neared. "That in this region extremists go all the way and moderates tend to just go away."
In response, my wife wondered aloud why, under this formula, we were still here.
Perhaps it's time to call moderates what we, in fact, are. Extremists for peace.
The occupation, the culture of militant Islam, the constant undermining of peace moves, the propaganda that states that killing of civilians is ever justified or that theft of land is somehow legal -- all of it is after your humanity.
Resist. They'll only take your soul if you let them.
Written for haaretz.com