August 30, 2002

How Israel's Peace Movement Fell Apart

BEER SHEVA, Israel - The peace movements in Israel have been silenced in the past year. The onslaught of terrorism and suicide bombings has given rise to a discourse of revenge, implemented by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the country's mighty military force, replacing any discourse of reconciliation and peace.

The war against terrorism led by the United States has made nearly all forms of retaliatory action undertaken by Israel more acceptable; public survey data may show that the majority of Israelis still support a two-state solution, including withdrawal from the occupied territories and the dismantling of settlements, but until then we are fighting and killing each other with bombs and tanks on an almost daily basis.

During the past two years, many of the most prominent peace activists, silent and disillusioned, have retired to the seclusion of their homes. Many on the left have moved to the center, while those in the center have moved to the right. Many now support the hard-line retaliatory policies of the Sharon government in its war against Palestinian terror. Media pundits, with few exceptions, have unhesitatingly supported the current government and its hard-line positions. The typical analysis goes like this: The peace supporters have been proved wrong; they failed to understand the reality of Palestinian hatred for Israel; Oslo was a mistake of colossal proportions and Israel has no option but to continue this bloody war of defense for another 50 years.

The falloff in support for the peace process is partially understandable. When Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat failed to reach an agreement at Camp David in 2000, any remaining trust between the two sides fell away, terrorism returned to the streets of Israel and outright war to the alleyways and refugee camps of the West Bank. The pro-peace organizations felt betrayed and helpless - and with a few brave exceptions, they became silent. The cooptation of the Labor Party into a government of right-wing national unity by a wily prime minister has not helped. The fact that the Labor Party opted for a military man, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, as its leader is a clear indicator of the limitations of any new peace initiative to be put forward by the left. In short, the pro-peace, pro-concessions lobby has fallen apart both at the grass-roots and the political party levels. There do not appear to be any groups ready to step into the vacuum to restart the peace process when the current bout of violence and terrorism finally ends.

But it is all too easy to blame the events of the past two years for the collapse of the peace discourse. The roots are much deeper than that and go back as far as Oslo itself, if not before. During the past decade, peace activism focused on the immediate problems to be resolved between Israel and the Palestinian Authority - resolving yesterday's crisis and attempting to avert tomorrow's crisis. Although there were many attempts to support cooperation programs between the two peoples, the Oslo process was confined to the political, diplomatic and academic elites, rarely filtering down to the general public. Most Israelis were skeptical of the process and needed to be convinced that it was possible to reach an agreement with the people who, until yesterday, hated them and refused even to recognize their existential legitimacy. Few resources were invested in peace education or the creation of a language of peace that would have been meaningful to large sectors of both populations. The Israeli Voice of Peace radio station actually closed down soon after Oslo.

The truth remains that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians remain totally unaware of one another's aspirations and dreams. This is despite all the people-to-people programs sponsored by foreign governments, the informal meetings between Israelis, Palestinians and other Middle Eastern politicians and academics, and other small projects aimed at furthering cooperation. , Most Israelis and Palestinians have little contact other than on Israeli construction sites and in restaurants, in the offices of the military administration or, at times like the present, through the telescope of an army rifle.

Indeed, when the Camp David talks collapsed, there was an almost shrugging acceptance of the failure by Israelis and Palestinians alike, as though nothing else could really have been expected.

The hard truth is that the peace movements and organizations were tired long before the Camp David fiasco. Their leaders were the same well-meaning but worn-out activists who had founded the original Peace Now movement more than 20 years ago. To their credit, they had mobilized public support for the implementation of the peace accords with Egypt and lobbied for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon. But they failed to attract the younger, middle-class, high-tech generation to their ranks. This failure contrasted strongly with the dynamic activism of the right-wing and West Bank settler movements that have successfully won the hearts and minds of a second, and even third, generation of activists. Israeli right-wing ideology has constantly been renewed through the messages of religious nationalism and irredentism, while the messages of peace and reconciliation - however difficult they are to sell during periods of violence and terrorism - have been relegated to irrelevance.

It is not sufficient simply for the violence to stop and for the negotiations to be kick-started back into existence (an unlikely
scenario given that Mr. Sharon and Mr. Arafat seem to outlast just about everyone else in this ongoing soap opera of a conflict). There has to be a reborn peace movement that can bring pressure to bear from below, cajoling the leaders to return to the negotiation table.

There is also a need for uniformity of objectives among the numerous splinter peace groups. The Peace Now movement is no more than an umbrella organization whose members mostly act independently through other smaller groups. There is a need for new, young leadership by people whose lives will be affected by what happens in the next 30 years. One glimmer of hope is the recent creation of Ta'ayush, a joint Jewish-Arab organization of people in their 20's and 30's who give aid to Palestinian villages subjected to Israeli Army curfews and closures. Creating a new language of peace is a long-term process, one that should have run parallel to the Oslo negotiations but was neglected in the belief that everything could be sorted out tomorrow. If it is not done now, when the situation is about as bad as it has been since the end of the 1967 war, mass support for a peace agreement, if and when such an agreement is finally signed, will not be forthcoming, and the forces of irredentism and conflict will once again win the day.

David Newman is chairman of the department of politics and government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.