TEL AVIV, Israel _ Pushed into the background by nearly 20 months of violence, Israel’s peace camp is slowly stirring into action. But the constant threat of terrorism and widespread Israeli mistrust of the Palestinians have taken their toll. Veteran peace activists are optimistic that peace negotiations can be resumed but most average Israelis just want some quiet.
Two weeks ago, Rabin Square was full once again. The scene of Israel’s greatest rallies was crowded with more than 70,000 peace demonstrators in the largest rally of any kind in Israel since this Palestinian uprising began.
Under the slogan “Get out of the Territories — for our own sake,” Israel’s peace camp made its much-anticipated return to the Israeli public stage.
“Here, in the place where hope was murdered seven years ago, it is resurrected once again today,” declared veteran peace activist Ahuva Levi, referring to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at that very same place by a Jewish extremist in 1995.
“Today, I tell the peace camp: We have not lost hope,” she said as the crowd held up peace signs and waved paper doves.
Less than 24 hours later those same dreamy visions of peace came crashing back to reality as Israel’s Likud Party, the leading party in the ruling coalition, voted overwhelmingly to reject the creation of a future Palestinian state.
And a week later, the coastal city of Netanya fell victim to yet another suicide bombing in which three Israelis were killed in a downtown fruit and vegetable market.
CHALLENGE FOR PEACE ADVOCATES
In an age of relentless violence, Israel’s peace camp has had a hard time making itself relevant — and even a harder time rallying the people around the idea of peaceful concessions.
“We are at war now. I don’t remember a war that a country didn’t support at first,” said Moshe (Mussi) Raz, a member of parliament from the leftist Meretz party and former secretary general of Peace Now. “The U.S. supported the war in Vietnam, at first. France supported the occupation in Algeria, at first and Israel supported the war in Lebanon, at first. Eventually they all realized there were wrong and got out. The same thing will happen here.”
For the time being, though, most Israelis continue to support the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has vowed not to negotiate under fire.
That same fire is what led to the collapse of the peace camp nearly 20 months ago.
While members of the Peace Coalition, led primarily by Peace Now — Israel’s leading peace movement over the past 20 years — assert that a week doesn’t go by without some activity on its part, the audience hasn’t been listening.
“There is not one Israeli who has not had a political identity crisis over the past two years,” Peace Now spokesman Didi Remez said.
Many Israelis were disillusioned when the basic assumption of the Oslo accords, that differences of opinion between the two people would be solved through negotiations, were shattered at once with the sudden explosion of Palestinian violence.
In addition, the sense that the Palestinians rejected former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s peace proposals at Camp David without as much as a counter offer led many Israelis to abandon the peace movement and rally around the flag.
“Before the intifada there was a right-left split in Israel,” Remez said. “Once it began, it became an Israeli-Palestinian split. There were no more voices of dissent,” he said.
Things have started to change in 2002. New groups, such as those representing soldiers who refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories, as well as disillusionment over the Labor Party’s membership of the Sharon government, has reinvigorated the peace camp.
Over the past few months, weekly protests have been held in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Beer Sheva and a permanent vigil has begun outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.
“At the end of the day people are rational. Even if they feel that the Palestinians don’t deserve a country they know that we do and therefore we need to get out of the occupied territories,” Remez said.
This line of thinking has caught on in the peace camp. Gone is the utopian vision of a “new Middle East.” In its place, the immediate demand is for the Israeli forces to pullback from the territories, with or without an agreement.
Remez, along with others in the peace camp, dismiss the government concerns about Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. “This is a matter of principle. I believe that if Israel is to survive it must leave the territories,” he said.
The success of the Rabin Square rally is viewed as a turning point by some of the activists.
Galia Golan, one of the founders of Peace Now, noted that more than 1,000 new volunteers had signed up with the movement.