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Antiwar Camp in Israel Comes Out of Bunker

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Times Staff Writer

A month into the war in Lebanon, Israel’s long-quiescent peace movement is suddenly issuing a ringing call to arms.

Isolated and beset by infighting in the first weeks of the conflict, the still-small peace camp was spurred into action by the Israeli government’s authorization this week of a broader ground invasion in Lebanon.

Faced with the prospect of a bloody, drawn-out conflict, mainstream peace groups that had refrained from criticizing the war effort are urging a diplomatic resolution to what has already proven to be a costly and complicated battle with the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah.

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On Thursday, organizers of an antiwar rally in Tel Aviv for the first time brought in what are regarded in this bookish country as big guns: a trio of Israel’s best-known authors.

The three -- Amos Oz, David Grossman and A.B. Yehoshua -- have all spoken out strongly against past conflicts and wield considerable moral authority here.

“The use of more force now is not in Israel’s best interests,” Oz told reporters before the rally in front of the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. “The time has come to resolve this through diplomatic means.”

Though it drew only several thousand people, the rally had a much different tone than protests organized previously by far-left groups. Absent this time were strident denunciations of the government and the army. Instead, the protesters waved blue-and-white Israeli flags as they shouted, “Negotiate now!”

According to polls, the war retains the broad backing of the Israeli public despite, or perhaps because of, growing sentiment that the battle against Hezbollah has thus far been a losing one.

And up until now, the antiwar movement had been mainly the province of what are generally considered to be splinter groups: Arab parties, communists and anarchists.

Yael Dayan, the daughter of iconic general and politician Moshe Dayan and a doyenne of the Israeli peace movement, found that out the hard way last week when she tried to address a Tel Aviv antiwar rally organized by a far-left coalition.

Stepping up to the microphone, Dayan -- an imposing, deep-voiced woman who bears a striking resemblance to her famous father -- told the crowd it was important to support Israel’s troops even while opposing the war.

Her listeners responded by hurling invective and debris, with some shouting that Israeli soldiers were baby-killers. Dayan was forced to relinquish the microphone and leave the stage.

“At that juncture, people who were protesting against this conflict simply did not want to hear the message that the war was a just one, at least initially,” said Dayan, a former lawmaker who is now the deputy mayor of Tel Aviv. “Even if we have the common ground of believing that now is the time to stop.”

The encounter, while extreme, was emblematic of sensitivities among Israelis who want to speak out against the war without appearing unpatriotic at what is felt to be a time of grave national crisis.

A survey released this week by Tel Aviv University suggested that with rockets raining down on the country’s north and troops dying in numbers not seen since the last Lebanon war, most people believed it was crucial to support the government’s war aims.

“An issue which is not in consensus is the right of protest,” wrote the survey’s authors, Ephraim Yaar and Tamar Hermann, noting that the public was evenly split over whether this was an appropriate time to speak out against the war.

The conflict is a fresh reminder that in Israel, the lines between left and right, between hawk and dove, have always been blurred.

Past peace agreements have almost always been forged by battle-hardened ex-generals. Prominent peaceniks make a point of doing their army reserve duty, believing it gives them greater moral authority to speak out against a given conflict.

And some of those who identify with Israel’s dovish left say that circumstances change, and actions must be altered accordingly.

Yosef Sendik, a captain in the army reserve, spent three months in jail because he refused to serve in the West Bank at the height of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

That decision, he said, was due to his strong belief that Palestinians’ rights were not being respected.

But he says he would go willingly to Lebanon if called.

“Like it says in the Bible, there is a time for peace and a time for war,” Sendik said. “This is a war of our survival -- I believe that.”

Similar soul-searching has taken place within the venerable Peace Now movement, founded during the first Lebanon war.

The group’s secretary-general, Yaariv Oppenheimer, said he believed in the war’s first weeks that Israel was correct and justified in striking hard at Hezbollah after the group staged a cross-border raid last month that captured two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others.

But Oppenheimer said he had deep qualms about the wide-ranging ground offensive authorized by Israel’s “security Cabinet” on Wednesday. While pressing ahead with fighting close to the border, the army held off Thursday on a deeper push into Lebanon, with policymakers saying there was a window, albeit a narrow one, during which mediation efforts should be given a chance.

The sometime role reversals that have taken place in the course of the conflict were satirized this week in the Haaretz newspaper, which ran editorial cartoons on facing pages depicting different views of the war.

In one caricature, a balding, ponytailed Peace Now adherent declares: “It won’t end until we wipe Beirut off the map!” In the other, a religiously devout Jewish settler, someone whom stereotype would place in the right-wing camp, tells a friend: “It won’t end until we talk.”

Uri Avnery, a snowy-haired veteran peace activist, said he believed that from this point on, the antiwar movement would gain momentum, as speaking out against a prolonged conflict becomes more socially acceptable.

“For now, we don’t reflect the thinking of the overall public,” he said. “But when you see 100 people at a rally one week, and 1,000 the next, and 10,000 the next, you can see the direction in which things are moving. This has to end.”


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