Peace Movement Has Become Powerless, Says MK Yuli Tamir

In a special interview, one of Peace Now's founders says she believes Netanyahu could make peace with Palestinians.

One of my favorite debates in the Talmud revolves around thequestion: Which is greater - study or deeds?

Rabbi Tarfon answered, 'Deeds!' Rabbi Akiva answered, 'Study!' The sages responded, 'Study is greater since studying leads to deeds.'

The principle that intellect should not be divorced from practice would not be lost on Labor MK Yuli Tamir - Israel's former minister of education (2006-2009) who began her professional career as a professor of political philosophy (protégée of Isaiah Berlin) and peace activist (one of the founders of Peace Now).

Dr. Tamir's entry into politics took place in 1995, shortly after Yitzchak Rabin's assassination. Feeling the urgency of the historic moment, Dr. Tamir joined the Labor party with the hopes of effecting change from within the political establishment.

In 1999, Dr. Tamir was appointed by Ehud Barak as Minister of Immigrant Absorption, and in 2003 and 2006 was elected to the Knesset serving as Minister of Education as well as acting Minister of Science, Culture and Sport. Today, as a consequence of what she sees as misguided leadership, Dr. Tamir sits in opposition within the Labor party.

Dr. Tamir was recently invited by J Street to speak at the organization?s first national conference in Washington DC. After the conference, we sat down to discuss her work as a scholar, her vocation as a peace activist and her career as a politician.

(The following is a truncated version of the interview. For the full exchange, please visit Ben-Yehuda's blog.

Q: In your book, Liberal Nationalism, you argue that liberalism and nationalism are not mutually exclusive. Where does Zionism fit into this picture? And how do you view the argument that holds Zionism to be a form of nationalism that inherently privileges the interests and needs of a particular group of citizens?

Tamir: Every nationalism privileges a group. That's the essence of nationalism. But Zionism was created by people with very liberal ideologies (Herzl and even Jabotinsky.) They were 19th century liberals. They read the classical literature of the 19th century and were talking in that language.

They wanted to establish a state where Jews will be a majority and therefore will be able to democratically establish a public sphere that reflects their identity, language, and tradition. This was the spirit of national self-determination that motivates the formation of most Western democracies. This is still true of democratic states, but after World War II all democracies wanted to disguised their national character.

However, even the most liberal democracies who think of themselves as free associations are not free associations but communities of fate that privileges those who are born into them and give preferences to members over non members.

Q: Can you describe your history in the Israeli peace movement?

I was one of the founders of Peace Now; it was created quite by coincidence. In 1976 we became young students, most of us were soldiers during the 1973 Yom Kippur war, so we came to the campus very loaded with anti war sentiments: With the sense that we had a duty to do something to change Israel for the better and that we couldn?t really rely on the elderly politicians because they failed us in the war.

So we created an overly intellectual movement called "Another Zionism." It was a bit pompous, not to say boring endeavor that produced long documents - something young aspiring intellectual do when they try to combine their eagerness for change with too much revolution sentiments and literature. We would write long pamphlets about the essence of Zionism and the new Zionism. And then when Sadat was about to come to Israel, that was 1978, we said we should become more effective, do something more than just sit together and analyze Zionist thinkers.

So we decided to do something that for us was rather radical: approach the public, write letters to decision makers. We said we will go to different sectors and there will be letters from teachers, and there will be letters from mayors. And one of the ideas was to write a letter of reserve officers, who served in the Yom Kippur war that would say: "We served in the war, we are patriots, but we think that there should be peace with Egypt." In the end, we decided that the first letter would be the reserve officers, since it would be the easiest to produce; everybody was connected to everybody from their army days. We wrote this letter and we were totally unaware of what it was going to create - it created a huge, unprecedented, wave of responses.

Within two days we had more responses than any other public movement in Israel and everybody said ok: do something with this support. What are you going to do now? I was 24; I think the oldest member was 28. We had no resources, we knew nothing about public life or politics, and we had no connections. So we said: ok, we will call for a demonstration in Tel-Aviv.

We got someone from the kibbutz movement to bring us a megaphone and a little stage and we had a very long pamphlet explaining why we were right and what should be done. But as we had no money to buy signs somebody told us that there was a group in Tel-Aviv who had tried to unsuccessfully to pull off a demonstration under the banner of "peace now."

We did not like the name but they had posters and we didn't have money. We phoned David Tartakover who made the posters for this group. We said, "We want to do this demonstration, and we heard you have unused posters and pamphlets, can we used them?" And he said, "Yes, sure." So he gave them to us and we placed them on the stage. This is how we got the name Peace Now, which stuck with us for thirty years. Afterwards there was a long discussion whether this was the right name for the movement and we never dared say it all started with leftovers.

Q: Peace Now, an organization that is based on the formula of land-for-peace, supported Ariel Sharon's unilateral disengagement plan. It even initiated the blue ribbon campaign in support of the disengagement (in contrast to a Yesha Council orange ribbon initiative against the disengagement.) In retrospect, given the destructive developments that took place in Gaza and the south of Israel following the disengagement, do you think such support was a mistake?

Tamir: To begin with Peace Now did not support the unilateral move. But there came a point that it was seen as the ultimate test for the ability to evacuate settlers, we believed that if at the end of the day there would be an evacuation of a whole region it will be a sign to both Palestinians and Israelis that it is possible to do it. I still think it is right. I am fully aware of what happened in Gaza after wards, and it certainly would have been much better to have done it in a coordinated process, rather than unilaterally. Doing so would have increased the likelihood that the PLO would have moved in and kept its position in Gaza. But Sharon broke once and for all the taboo that you do not evacuate; Sharon proved that, if you want to do it, you can do it. Obviously the failure to create a neighboring regime that can negotiate with Israel, is a huge failure.

Q: So in retrospect, you would do the same thing?

Tamir: We could not leave Sharon without public support, we were afraid he will be assassinated like Rabin. If that were to happen everybody could easily reach a conclusion that one should never be involve in an attempt to solve the conflict. This would have been a devastating moment.

Q: Where does the peace movement in Israel stand today? What is the significance of people like Olmert, Livni, and Netanyahu appropriating the language and logic (but not the ethics) of the peace movement?

It has been marginalized by its own success. This, by the way, happened to many liberal movements all around the world. Wining an ideological argument is a double-edged sword. Today the debates of the 70s and the 80s are sort of over. I don?t think that anyone speaks now about "the greater Israel." Most people understand that there will be a two-state solution. I remember the debates I used to have with Ehud Olmert when we were both much younger - greater Israel versus a two states solution. It is over.

The irony is that while there is no longer an ideological debate, there is no process either. It is very difficult to motivate people to act when there is a sense of national consensus. People say 'Oh well, you know, I heard Netanyahu three days ago saying, 'We want peace, we want a two state solution', seems now to be a debate about strategy, how to get there and not where to go, and it is not the kind of debate that steers a lot of enthusiasm.

People do not actually have an idea why nothing is happening. And then the general belief this government is promoting is that the other side does not want an agreement. And this is always easy to believe as no side wants to be seen as the one who is responsible for the dead end. So in a way we won the ideological fight but politically we are powerless.

Q: Do you think that under the present incarnation of the Netanyahu government there is a chance for peace?

Tamir: Netanyahu has an opportunity to pick up where the Olmert government left the negotiations and reach an agreement. In the Syrian front most of the problematic issues were already dealt with so Netanyahu could make a break-through and then make an attempt to continue in the Palestinian front.