Israeli Peace Activists Forced to Retreat Under a Barrage From Angry Rightists : Mood: It's been a year of distress for those who favor conciliation. Recent events have put the left on ever more slippery ground.


A group of enraged Israelis drove Arab construction workers from a building site in Baka, the Jerusalem neighborhood where on Sunday a Palestinian had stabbed and killed three residents. The group then turned to the home of a well-known peace activist.

"PLO supporter!" one yelled. "Leftist!"

A few of them picked up stones and hurled them at the man's second-story apartment until police intervened, arresting local residents who tried to stop them and sending the rest on their way.

Attacks against the left, physical and verbal, provided a strong undercurrent to the public's bitter reaction to Sunday's slayings--the left in Israel being defined largely on the basis of whether one favors a political settlement of the Palestinian conflict that includes giving up land to the Arabs.

The attacks added to a sense of unease among peace activists, who have endured a year of distress. Once they were a vital force in the politics of protest, viewed--from abroad at least--as a kind of conscience of Israel. But now, more and more, they are living on the margin of effectiveness and public acceptance.

On the one hand, peace activists are vilified for supporting the idea of Palestinian statehood. On the other, many feel betrayed by Palestinian support for Iraq, the invader of Kuwait and avowed enemy of Israel.

To this situation was added Sunday's knife attack in Baka, where several prominent peace activists and sympathizers live: first, the shock that neighbors in this quiet district should be struck down in cold blood, then the horror that the mob--including residents of the community--should place the blame on them.

"We are being made a scapegoat," said Amiram Goldblum, a Peace Now activist whose house was stoned. "It's madness, sheer madness."

"Our vulnerability to Palestinians and angry Jews is greater than at any time I can remember," said Sidra Ezrahi, who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to Baka.

Under intense public pressure, peace activists have hardly ever walked on more slippery ground. Their contention that talks can produce a solution appears undermined by Palestinian violence. The unwillingness of public Palestinian leaders, especially the Palestine Liberation Organization, to fully condemn attacks on civilians leaves the peace activists open to complaints that they are dealing with unrepentant terrorists. No Palestinian leader has stepped forward to condemn Sunday's killings.

Amid the passion for vengeance, calls for evenhandedness, are viewed with suspicion and disdain.

"When there is this kind of violence, we just lose ground," Goldblum said. "We lose the people in the middle."

In any event, the collapse of the U.S.-led effort to get Israeli-Palestinian peace talks started has deprived the peace movement of a concrete framework for its activities, which included informal dialogues with Palestinian leaders and common citizens.

Groups like Peace Now achieved prominence in the protests over Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its costly three-year military involvement there. Massive protests contributed to the political pressure for Israel's withdrawal from most of Lebanon in 1985.

But since then, peace groups seem more and more alienated from the mainstream of Israeli society, which according to most studies is moving toward the right and an uncompromising anti-Arab position. The erosion of public support is visible in the Labor Party's successive failures in national elections and the rightist Likud Party's long stay in power. The parties to the left of Labor are fractured and have a narrow appeal.

Sympathetic critics like writer Amos Oz say the left has weakened its hold on the public by taking patronizing attitudes toward Israelis who did not share what leftists view as true Zionist ideals: egalitarianism, secular thought, compromise with the Palestinians.

"Anyone who didn't think as we did we considered a bit of an idiot, believing that something was wrong with them," Oz said in a recent interview with Spectrum, the Labor magazine. "We weren't willing to recognize the fact that there is an authentic anger towards the Arabs in this country, that there is an understandable fear of the Arabs in particular and of the Gentiles in general. There is a sort of aspiration on the left to remain few and cursed."

Others say they are the victims of right-wing campaigns of demonization in which leftists are accused of traitorous activity.

"The hostility is a product of the right," Peace Now activist Goldblum said.

In any event, peace groups have tried to expand their constituency by conducting workshops in poor development towns in the south and north.

"We have to get away from Baka," Peace Now activist Janet Aviad said.

Activists say the attack in Baka, coupled with a string of violent summer and fall incidents in Jerusalem, buttresses their campaign for a settlement with the Palestinians.

"All the violence strengthens our argument, that there has to be separation from the Palestinians," Aviad said.

Goldblum added: "We need a partner for talks, terrorist or otherwise. I don't have any illusions that the Palestinians love us. I'm not looking for Peace Now among the Palestinians. I just want two states and separation."

But before reaching out, some leftists are detouring within. The attack in Baka has forced the peace activists to pull back from the fray.

"The vocabulary is of defense and hate," Sidra Ezrahi said. "People say, 'We have to get guns.' Who has the energy to work for peace?"

In Baka and nearby places, peace proponents have activated a system of neighborhood vigilance groups, a network that is usually called upon when there is a threat of attack on Arabs in order to witness abuses. Now it is to watch for attacks on the homes of peace activists by roving Israeli gangs.

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