For the Left, the Future Is Now

Ending a condolence call to actor Shlomo Vishinski yesterday, Shimon Peres sounded more resolute than he has been for years. "I've never felt as charged up as I do right now, when I see such potential stacked up against such tremendous dangers," Peres said.

Ending a condolence call to actor Shlomo Vishinski yesterday, Shimon Peres sounded more resolute than he has been for years. "I've never felt as charged up as I do right now, when I see such potential stacked up against such tremendous dangers," Peres said. Once Peres' own political hopes are separated from the equation, the opposition leader who has already celebrated his 80th birthday, expresses the mood now gripping the Israeli peace camp. This is an atmosphere of renewal, and hope.

This week's two catastrophes in the Gaza Strip added new life to the left. It seemed as though this is the season of the left's resurgence. Feelings of irrelevance which have plagued the left over the last five years have suddenly been replaced by a sense that the peace camp has moved back to center stage - and the stage is to be set up at Rabin Square, tomorrow night.

"We're going to the square not as representatives of the left, but as delegates of all of Israel, apart from the settlers," a young leftist stated. "That's the main message that I hope will be sent out by this rally."

Cooperation between two of the speakers at tomorrow night's rally - Ami Ayalon and Amir Peretz - reflects the current transformation of the left. Peretz, who was one of the first activists of the Peace Now movement, has avoided this sort of leftist demonstration for many years. Even if the Histadrut leader is unable to bring to Rabin Square various workers committees, his own presence at the rally is in itself a message. Given that the peace demonstration coincides with the merger between Peretz's One Nation party with the Labor party, Peretz's appearance at the rally has political meaning.

"This is the beginning of the left's comeback," says Peres, speaking of the merger between Peretz's party and his own. "You can't have a Labor party without a workers' representative, and a social voice. Amir will provide this voice."

Similarly, the fact that Ami Ayalon, a co-sponsor of the People's Voice draft peace initiative, has decided to take part in the rally also has symbolic import. Up to now, Ayalon has refused to join any political stream, and has flown solo with his peace efforts. That he has agreed this time to deliver a speech at a rally staged by the left makes an important statement about the rejuvenation of Israel's peace camp.

"It's true, I refused to take part in the beginning," says Ayalon. "When they proposed that I speak, I thought the rally would lack relevance so long as politicians from a range of political parties fail to take part ... But, responding to the events of the past few days, I came to the conclusion that my own opinion of the rally and the speeches isn't important; I understood that it would be wrong to keep silent, and so I phoned Peres and told him I would come."

Ayalon said his only regret was that a rally claiming to represent the "majority" will not include people such as Ehud Olmert from the Likud and Shas politicians - "people with whom I'm regularly in contact. In the hours left before the rally, I'm going to make some phone calls - not to coax these people into coming, but to try to figure out why they're not there," he said.

Geneva syndrome

As the left's moment of truth arrives, it needs to overcome patent handicaps. The past several weeks have exposed all of the camp's weaknesses - power struggles between various individuals, and different outlooks between those who insist on a peace agreement with the Palestinians (such as backers of the Geneva initiative), and those who support unilateral withdrawal from the territories.

Relating to this ideological debate, Peres said: "Geneva is not a plan for domestic political consumption. It's a plan that's popular overseas." But Yossi Beilin, one of the Geneva initiative's architects and a speaker at tomorrow's rally (as chairman of the new Yahad party), insisted that Geneva backers be included on the roster of speakers. Businessmen who contributed funds to tomorrow's rally threatened to hold back their donations should too much prominence be given to the Geneva supporters.

Amir Peretz, who is taking a giant political step by speaking at the peace rally, opposed giving the platform to any Geneva backer. "I'm not dictating the list of speakers," he said earlier this week.

"However, I told Beilin I feel as though I'm part of a group of people who want to push a cart up a road, and before it gets anywhere we're already in an argument about which junction should serve as the end of our mission. It would be wrong to let any figure push this demonstration in a radical, leftward direction. This is a time to be nonpartisan."

This concerted effort to play down party commitments has led many of the demonstration's organizers to question the Shinui party's actions. In one version of events, Shinui's leaders, particularly Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, have forbidden the party's MKs from joining the demonstration.

"That's not true - the party hasn't issued a ban. The party simply decided not to take part in the rally," one of Lapid's assistants says. "We are an orderly party in an orderly state, and if we wanted to take part in the rally, we'd quit the government."

No matter how many people turn up tomorrow night, the rally will differ from demonstrations that have been staged in past years. Ami Ayalon says the prime minister's disengagement plan has created a make-or-break moment for Israeli society. Beilin said: "This demonstration has the potential of turning into the most dramatic event staged by the left during the past 22 years."

That prediction remains to be proved by tomorrow's event. No matter what happens, it seems clear that things have changed. The biggest change is that speakers on the stage will direct their comments not only at those who pack into Rabin Square, but also at those who are not present. They will address the large numbers of Israelis who feel despair about current events, who are frustrated that a majority of the public has been held captive by an ideological minority.

These are Israelis who agree with the message of the rally, but who are not prepared to identify with the left in a public demonstration. The objective of winning the hearts of such Israelis poses an enormous challenge to the left, which will have to develop a new rhetoric, a new style of addressing this presumed majority.

"Tomorrow's rally is an opportunity to create momentum, to convince the country that the majority cannot surrender to a minority," Beilin says.

The day after the rally, the left will have to act quickly, to capitalize on any momentum generated. Peres appears to be the leader who will direct the rejuvenated left. He appears to be poised to sprint past Ehud Barak, who is looking for some way to make a political comeback. Given that he draws political credibility straight from David Ben-Gurion, why does Peres need the Geneva initiative?

"Peres is right," Beilin said of his political mentor. "The Geneva initiative does not have wall-to-wall support among the left, but 65 percent of Labor party supporters back Geneva," he said in defense of the draft peace agreement he co-authored.

As the left sets up its rostrum on Rabin Square, one big question remains to be settled: Will the same left that proclaims such sympathy for Israel's majority - which, it claims, has been held hostage by the "minority" (namely, Likud referendum voters) - not try to hold its own constituency hostage with incessant bickering over peace proposals?