Women’s Peace Group to Hold Vigil Outside Knesset for Duration of Winter Session

120 members from Women Wage Peace will stand there every week, each one holding a sign with the name of a single Knesset member. The goal, said one of the group’s leaders, is to get Israel's 120 lawmakers thinking about peace.

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Thousands of women rally in Jerusalem for closing of two-week 'Women Wage Peace' event, on October 19, 2016.
Thousands of women rally in Jerusalem for closing of two-week 'Women Wage Peace' event, on October 19, 2016.Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters

When the Knesset begins its winter session on Monday, 120 women from the Women Wage Peace organization will be right outside holding a peace vigil. They plan to stand there every week, each one holding a sign with the name of a single Knesset member. They’ll also hold pictures of former prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, bearing the slogan “With you all the way to the Nobel Peace Prize.”

The goal, said one of the group’s leaders, Yael Admi, is to get Israel’s 120 MKs thinking about peace.

Last week, Women Wage Peace completed a two-week peace march from Rosh Hanikra to the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, culminating in a mass rally that attracted thousands of people. Anyone who saw “the river of Israeli and Palestinian women marching and singing ‘Yes to peace, no to war’ together knows history was being made here,” said Admi, adding, “There’s a dispute over whether it was comparable to the Exodus from Egypt or the revelation at Mount Sinai.”

About 1,000 Palestinian women from the West Bank joined the march at Qasr al-Yahud, on the Jordan River, constituting one of the high points of the event. Another was the concluding rally, where the guest of honor was Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, one of the leaders of a women’s movement that helped end the civil war in Liberia.

There was also a highly symbolic moment at the march’s opening ceremony, when members of the Four Mothers movement – a protest group widely credited with spurring Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 – handed a burning torch to Women Wage Peace, founded after the 2014 Gaza war. “Bear it aloft until you’ve achieved peace,” said Zohara Antebi, one of Four Mothers’ founders.

Four Mothers was the inspiration for Women Wage Peace. The question is whether the latter, which has already recruited thousands of members, will prove equally significant.

Women Wage Peace activists begin the first leg of their cross-country walk on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 in Rosh Hanikra, near the Lebanese border.Credit: Shai Brown

“It’s becoming much bigger than Four Mothers,” said Antebi, who joined Women Wage Peace last year. Nevertheless, she acknowledged, Israeli-Palestinian peace is far harder to achieve than the pullout from Lebanon, where a recognized border already existed and there were no Jewish settlements.

It took Four Mothers four years to convince the public that a unilateral pullout, once considered unfeasible, was both feasible and desirable, Antebi said. Women Wage Peace is seeking to create a similar turnabout in public opinion, at a time when much of the public doubts that peace is achievable.

To this end, it has held parlor meetings all over the country, in both Jewish and Arab towns, and even in the settlements. At these meetings, the women screen a documentary about the success of the Liberian women’s movement to inspire hope among their audiences.

They also organize meetings between women from different segments of society and hold lectures by experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And every so often, they hold a nationwide event to raise public awareness, like this year’s March of Hope or last year’s 50-day fast in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence to mark the first anniversary of the 2014 Gaza war.

Some have criticized the organization’s call for a “respectable diplomatic agreement acceptable to both sides” as being too vague, arguing that the group ought to promote a more detailed solution. But Women Wage Peace sees this vagueness as crucial to getting as many people as possible to support it.

“We aren’t willing to remain in a small right-left box,” explained Lily Weisberger, another of the group’s founders. “There are women from every part of the political spectrum who say enough of these labels; there’s something simple here: The leaders must immediately sit down and find the solution, and it exists.”

“What unites us,” Admi added, “is that we’re all convinced another round of violence won’t bring security, which means the only thing that will bring it is an agreement.” The lack of specificity “is precisely our strength.”

Antebi, however, thinks the group will eventually have to get more specific. Four Mothers also began with the vague statement that “we must do something about Lebanon,” she noted, but later, it advocated a concrete plan of action.

Bruria Sharon, another Four Mothers founder, recalled things differently; she said the group had begun advocating a unilateral pullout within two months. And she thinks Women Wage Peace needs to start defining concrete milestones on the road to peace right now.

But Antebi thinks what the organization needs first is more visibility, and especially better relations with the media. The March of Hope, for instance, was “exceptionally impressive, but it got almost no media coverage.”

Admi admitted that she was frustrated by the lack of media coverage, but she remains optimistic. “It’s a long road,” she said. “It’s not easy to make peace, and one of the walls we have to break through is the media system.”

Antebi said the group should also start lobbying Knesset members, starting with the women MKs – all of them, regardless of their political leanings. “I think even among women on the right, they’ll find a warm shoulder and an understanding heart,” she said.

Four Mothers did combine public activity with political lobbying. It spoke with “Knesset member after Knesset member, minister after minister, prime minister after prime minister,” Antebi recalled.

“We brought a lot of statistics,” she added. “We weren’t just nave; we studied the issue.”

Women Wage Peace hasn’t lobbied MKs until now, but it’s currently creating a task force to start doing so. Admi said two MKs – Merav Ben Ari (Kulanu) and Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) – have also discussed setting up a Knesset caucus on the issue. During the march, the organization invited MKs to address the marchers in Kfar Sava, and Admi is proud that the speakers spanned the political spectrum, from right-wing MK Yehuda Glick (Likud) to Arab MK Ayman Odeh (Joint List).

“When we began, we said it would take four years,” Admi concluded. “Two years have passed, and in my view, we’re much farther along than we were when we started.”