08/22/2011 09:18 am ET Updated Oct 22, 2011

Arab Blood on American Hands

Israel has shocked the world by apologizing for the death of three Egyptian officers from Israeli gunfire -- a stark reminder that Israeli leaders don't just do whatever they damn please. They calculate their own and their nation's interests like any other politicians. When it's in their interests they publicly accept blame for their actions. Better to apologize than risk losing good relations with a powerful country like Egypt, they figure.

Suppose they ran the risk of losing good relations with their most powerful ally, the one on whom they know their very existence depends -- the United States? The Israeli press generally assumes that if Washington truly demanded sincere Israeli negotiations for peace, no Israeli leader could refuse. Obama refrains from making those demands only because he fears the political price at home; he fears us, the people.

Why won't we let him force Israel to make a just peace and accept a viable Palestinian state? One road to the answer begins with an Israeli official's resentful comment on the apology to Egypt: "Now we have to take the heat, as if we were responsible for the attack."

"As if." Of course Israeli leaders won't actually feel any responsibility. That would violate their fundamental code, the myth of Israel's insecurity: Israel must always be presented as the victim, aggressed upon though never aggressing, constantly guarding itself against enemies who attack without provocation but simply out of an urge to destroy the Jewish state.

That story has not changed in Israel -- nor in the mass media here in the U.S. Apart from the Israeli apology, the whole incident was presented here with the same old script: Palestinian "terrorists" attack and kill Israelis, like a bolt out of the blue. Israel justifiably strikes back, as any nation would do when attacked, and kills some Arabs.

The vast majority of Americans are left, as always, assuming that the Israelis are merely defending themselves against cruel aggressors. And if the Israelis get a bit carried away? Well, the average American easily says, we've overdone it a bit ourselves in places like Dresden and My Lai. But hey, that's war. We never start it, do we?

So it never occurs to most Americans to ask why Gazans would risk their lives on military operations against Israelis. If anyone bothers to ask, the answers are obvious:

Years of Israeli occupation of Gaza and then, when the Israeli soldiers left, more years of Israel's strangulating economic control; the return of Israeli soldiers in the brutal attack of December, 2008, which destroyed so much of what the Gazans had rebuilt; the Israeli (and American) efforts to deny Hamas its rightful place as the elected leaders of the Palestinian parliament, provoking a deadly civil war; the persistent Israeli efforts to demonize Gaza and its Hamas rulers, focusing all the world's attention on the West Bank and its Fatah leaders as the only Palestinians worth negotiating with; the Israeli charades that ensure no really serious negotiations with any Palestinians will occur, meaning there will be no viable Palestinian state.

Attacks from Gaza don't come out of the blue. They come out of years of frustration, as the Israelis continue to prevent Palestinians from exercising the right of national self-determination, which the Israelis claim as the justification for their own Jewish state.

Yet that story remains unknown to the U.S. mass media and thus to nearly all Americans. Instead, the mass media eagerly purvey a tale that makes Israel seem like an extension of the United States itself: hardy settlers in the wilderness, forced to fight off darker-skinned savages who want to destroy them. Since the media depict those "savages" -- now known as "terrorists" -- as crazy fanatics, no explanation of their motives is asked for. And certainly none is given by the media.

The myth of Israel's insecurity has enormous political power in the U.S., as Obama found out the hard way when he first called on Israel to stop expanding its settlements. The outrage that forced him to back down did not come primarily from American Jews. Most of them support Obama putting pressure on Israel to compromise for peace. And most Jewish donors are as willing as ever to fill the president's campaign coffers.

No, the outrage came more from Republicans who still cherish the myth of the Old West frontiersman as the prototype of what a true American should be -- in the mountains of Afghanistan, on the U.S.-Mexico border, or wherever the "savages" threaten to overrun "civilization." With the moral questions around U.S. imperial policy so muddied, they are glad to have one ally whose moral credentials seemed untarnished: "poor little Israel," fighting for its life against Arab destroyers. Since most Americans hear the story that way, the pressure remains on the president to "stand with Israel" and condone its violence as "self-defense."

It's this U.S. policy, not Israeli policy, that really keeps the Palestinians stateless and oppressed. If that oppression drives a tiny number of Palestinians to violence, the ultimate responsibility lies with America's failure -- our failure -- to relieve their oppression. Far more Arabs than Israelis die in the violence, and we have that Arab blood on our hands.

Now there's clear evidence that the American people can make a difference. When Obama, last May, called for Israeli to negotiate a peace based on the 1967 borders -- with minor, mutually agreed adjustments and security guarantees -- it was a major victory for J Street, the upstart, moderate Jewish peace lobby. They had been advocating a peace plan using exactly those words for many months.

Yesterday was the last day of J Street's Two-State Summer campaign. They'll deliver the thousands of petitions they've gathered to Congress. Their track record shows that they can make a difference.

But neither J Street nor all the other peace groups have enough strength to let Obama turn his words into forceful policy demands on Israel, at least not yet. The myth of Israel's insecurity is still too strong (partly because J Street itself, despite its commendable success in changing the script, doesn't attack the myth head-on).

When enough of us work hard enough to replace that myth with the tragic story of Palestine's suffering and oppression, making clear that Israel is the true aggressor, we may finally be able to wash that blood off our hands.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S on his blog.