The Distant Call of Peace

Jo-Ann Mort, national secretary of Americans for Peace Now, writes frequently about Israeli politics

Waiting for the Messiah, as the Yiddish proverb goes, is turning into steady work. It's a grim time in the Middle East, a time when divine intervention sometimes seems like the only solution. But the peace movement can wait no longer.

Israel's peace camp has had a tough year. From last summer's failed Camp David meetings to the current intifada, events in the Middle East have convinced some in Israel that peace currently is both unobtainable and, on some level, undesirable. The good news in Israel this summer, though, is that peace activists are back in the streets, conducting public meetings with Palestinian intellectuals and politicians and fostering youth dialogues. They have begun the hard work of healing--or at least discussing--the rift between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. They have begun anew championing two crucial issues: halting the settlement process and fashioning a two-state solution with defensible borders. While critics on the right say the peace camp is naive or irrelevant, no one--including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--has proposed any other path to end what is at present an untenable situation.

Still, making the case for peace isn't easy. Sharon enjoys ratings topping 70%, due largely to recent Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. Passions and mistrust run unchecked on both sides. The peace process feels in Israel as if it has lost years--if not a decade--of momentum. The debate has returned to the most basic question: whether or not the Palestinians can be a partner for peace. But the fact is, there remains no military solution to this crisis. Both sides must return to the table. And it's important for Israel to also fully accept that the Palestine Liberation Organization is still the entity negotiating for the other side.

Many on the Israeli right are, at least metaphorically, waiting for the Messiah. If they can just wait out Yasser Arafat, who after all won't live forever, then perhaps the next Palestinian leader will bring deliverance. But the alternative to Arafat might be a Palestinian who, like many fundamentalist Jews, listens to a rejectionist God. "We don't have the luxury of ruling out Arafat as a partner," argues Yossi Beilin, justice minister in the government of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. "For decades, we searched for a partner--King Hussein (the Jordanian option of linking Palestinians to Jordan), Palestinian mayors, village leagues--never successfully. The only one to represent the Palestinians is the PLO and Arafat.... Part of the criticism of him is right, but this is commentary, not policy."

The latest incarnation of Israel's peace camp is organized around the newly formed Peace Coalition, comprising Peace Now, the Meretz party and fragments of the Labor Party coalition headed by Beilin, who currently runs a peace think tank in Tel Aviv. Beilin refused to join Sharon's government, he recently told me, because he considered labor's inclusion in the government a "fig-leaf for Sharon's policies."

From 1977, when a group of reserve army officers founded Peace Now by signing a letter acknowledging the peaceful gestures of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the role of the peace camp in Israel has been crucial, both as a public conscience and as an instigator of steps toward peace. The movement has articulated its belief that there is a partner for peace and has worked to bridge the gaps in negotiating postures. (In the early days, Peace Now members and pro-peace Knesset members even conducted clandestine, sometimes illegal, meetings with PLO leaders and Palestinian intellectuals. By doing so, they made the Palestinians legitimate to a broader Israeli public. And, of course, it was Beilin and his cohorts who began the secret Oslo peace process.)

Since its founding, Peace Now has also opposed--and exposed--illegal Jewish settlements. The peaceniks have argued that the only way to make Israel militarily secure is through a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and a land-for-peace agreement. Certainly there has been much introspection since the Al Aqsa intifada. Many in the peace camp feel they were wrong not to demand an end to settlement expansion at the beginning of the Oslo talks and also not to demand that the Palestinians stop inciting violence in the streets. But, none of the basic formulas for peace have changed.

The movement's job is particularly difficult now because of the military closure of the West Bank and Gaza. Human contact between Israeli Jews and Palestinians is crucial to the peace process, yet any kind of joint work is severely hampered by the fact that Israelis are forbidden to enter areas under Palestinian control, except with Israeli military approval. Palestinians must also get permission, rarely given, to cross into Israel.

Still, progress is being made. This past week, after an initial meeting held in a village between Jerusalem and Ramallah and subsequent discussions, a public statement was issued jointly by Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals. The meeting and statement, spearheaded by Beilin and Palestinian Authority Minister of Culture and Information Yasser Abed-Rabbo, is important in reminding people that both sides want peace, something which has been lost in the violence. The Israeli signers included well-known writers Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. Palestinian signers include sociologist Salim Tamari, Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh, Arab League spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi and Abed-Rabbo, whose signature implies the process has at least a nod from Arafat.

Important as they are, though, statements are only baby steps in the long march back toward a peace agreement. With Sharon's popularity high, violence continuing and settlers showing increasing militancy, the movement has its work cut out for it. Nissim Calderon, a leading Israeli cultural critic who also signed the statement explained to me, "A building was [torn down]. It has to be replaced brick by brick."

The rebuilding process won't be easy. Israelis need to help their countrymen see that the PLO can still be a peace partner despite the summer's violence. The Palestinians, in turn, need to show their constituents that there is a peaceful way to move beyond the misery of the occupation.

Still, while the Israeli public remains confused and frustrated over exactly what has happened in the last year and a half, more than 50% of the Israeli public continues to support an end to the settlements. Some peaceniks, concerned about the timeline for future negotiations, are arguing for unilateral withdrawal from the settlements. How much withdrawal is enough, however, remains at issue. It is difficult to imagine any Israeli government willing to withdraw as far as the 1967 Green Line. And it is difficult to imagine the Palestinians being truly satisfied with anything less.

Peace Now continues to track settlement growth, and recently exposed 15 new settlements whose existence Sharon tried to deny. Especially in areas like Hebron, where hundreds of extremist settlers keep 150,000 Palestinians under domination and curfew, each settlement is potential kindling for new conflicts. The settlements, says Peace Now's Janet Aviad, have trapped "Israel into a situation where it oppresses another people on a daily basis, for the sake of 2% of the Israeli population... The rest of Israel pays a moral price."

As important to the Palestinians as the settlement issue is to the Israelis is the right of return for Palestinian refugees, something Palestinians consider crucial to any agreement and something Israeli Jews worry could result in an influx of Palestinians that would overwhelm the Jewish population of Israel. The intellectuals' statement responds to this issue by stating that "solutions can be found to all outstanding issues that should be fair and just to both sides and should not undermine the sovereignty of the Palestinian and Israeli states as determined by their respective citizens."

If Israel needs motivation to return to the negotiating table, perhaps it should be this: According to a recent report delivered to the Knesset, if no separation is negotiated by 2020, Arabs will comprise 58% of the Israeli population, while Jews will comprise only 42%. Israel, which set out with the dream of creating a Jewish democracy, will have to face becoming instead an apartheid state. And that would be a situation into which even the Messiah would be reluctant to step.

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