Protest? Not Now

For many in Peace Now, the war with Hezbollah has returned to Israel the virtuousness it lost in the territories. The left has never felt so right.

Last Monday, Peace Now held a special meeting of its executive on the current war in Lebanon. Only infrequently do as many as 40 members come to this kind of meeting. On rare occasions, their views are not divided along the familiar moderate and radical lines, as happened this time. Various new themes came up during the meeting, aside from the standard endless debates on the occupation and the territories: the justice of the war, its morality, the way it is being fought and its purpose. Those are the lines along which the left is currently formulating its positions. Only a small number of participants took issue with the justness of the war; the vast majority felt it was justified.

It has been a long time since the left has felt so right. That feeling of virtuousness, lost when the territories were occupied, reawoke momentarily when confronting Hezbollah. But that too turned out to be a short-lived delight.

According to the former secretary general of Peace Now, Mossi Raz, "We feel so virtuous that we have forgotten to be smart too. That is the tragedy now: People who for years fought against the occupation suddenly love finding themselves on the side of virtue. It is such an intoxicating feeling that it could overshadow good sense."

Professor Dan Jacobson, one of the movement's leaders, claims on the other hand, "There is a huge difference between a human rights movement and a peace movement." This distinction has been blurred over the years by the occupation and is being brought into sharp relief now. Jacobson represents those in the movement who believe that opposing a war to defend Israel's accepted borders would undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the left's principal argument - for a return to the 1967 borders.

Even if justified, some perceive the current war as futile, or even damaging to Israel's interests. Eli Safran, a peace activist who came to the meeting from Kibbutz Sassa, in the north, says they have decided for now not to become involved in any protests, with an emphasis, they say, on "for now."

The majority of the left is currently taking this stance, and the lack of protests help to bolster the national consensus. However, cracks are already appearing under the surface. Those following the left's reactions will see a new phenomenon: The protests have been much smaller but appeared much faster, and are far more complex both morally and politically.

Two days before the meeting, Moriah Shlomot, secretary general of Peace Now from 2000 to 2002, participated in a demonstration organized by Gush Shalom and the Arab parties. It was not an easy decision for her. Her family still lives in Kibbutz Baram, and Maroun al-Ras is part of her childhood landscapes.

When they heard she had taken part in that demonstration, she says, some kibbutz members called her an idiot. She was not insulted.

"I see the members of Baram and my heart is with them," she says. "I would love to be a person with absolutely universal morals, but I'm not. It is not because of them that I attended the demonstration. I love my country in the deepest way possible, and my feelings here run very deep. I still remember how we trembled as children in Baram for fear of terrorist attacks. I used to imagine to myself how I would belly dance in front of them and engage them in dialogue, so they wouldn't kill me.

"But the question I ask myself now is whether the decision to launch such a grandiose campaign really protects the people living in the north. And I have to say that it does not. I am not even dealing with the question of whether the war is justified. All that concerns me is whether it is beneficial, and I don't see that it is. On the contrary, the army is perceived as unprepared and its shame is being exposed for all to see. Half a million Lebanese refugees and 400 dead so far won't make Lebanon more friendly to Israel. As a mental health professional, I am very concerned by the matter of proportionality. There is a clear difference between a parent who punishes and a parent who abuses. With the extreme response in Lebanon, we have become abusers perpetuating a cycle of injustice. But more than anything else, it is clear to me that first we have to resolve what conflicts we can, such as the one with the Palestinians. Only when that wound stops bleeding will we feel completely in the right. I was born in 1968 into the occupation, and I long for a feeling that I have never had."

Many would argue that the left has only knee-jerk reactions, that it will find Israel is always to blame. Even if that is true where the Palestinian issue is concerned, it does not hold water now. The current debate within the peace camp is very complex and nuanced. And always hovering in the air is the understanding that the peace camp is in trouble. The Qassam rockets fired after the disengagement and the Hezbollah attacks after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon have undermined the left's promise that realigning to accepted borders would bring peace.

"It will be a real pleasure to do copywriting for the political right in the near future," admits Oppenheimer. "On the other hand, the lesson is that when we are within recognized borders, we have the right to defend ourselves with everything we have. The confusion is already clear. I miss the days when we could make unanimous decisions and get right to work. That is not the case today."

Oppenheimer says that when he read in Haaretz what those who refused to serve in this war had to say last week, he felt like killing them.

"I have never agreed with them, but at least I could understand their reasoning and their unwillingness to be part of the occupation. Even considering refusal now is completely unacceptable, I believe, and it indirectly undermines the legitimacy of the entire left wing. After all, considerable parts of the public do not distinguish between us."

Oppenheimer says that unlike the leftists who claim to speak in the name of universal morals, that is not what motivates him.

"I don't shut my eyes to the other side, but Israeli interests will get me out into the street much faster than universal morality. I'm not more moral than most Israelis; I'm not even sure than I am more sensitive than most. This is how I see the movement: We are not a movement that concerns itself with universal morality, but rather with what is good for Israel. Regarding the occupation in the territories and our behavior in Gaza, morality and what is good for Israel are one and the same. But in other cases, the Israeli interest takes precedence. The question for me is if and when these two lines cross in Lebanon. My current dilemmas are neither moral nor political; they are pragmatic.

"The truth is that in the last few days I feel a little silly - as if I were saying that if the campaign is successful then I'm in favor of it, but if it fails I'm against it. That is not exactly a morality-based consideration, and everything that takes shape in the movement will be based on whether it is beneficial to Israel."

Immediately after the war broke out, a group of about 20 Peace Now activists left to spend a weekend up north at Kibbutz Gonen. The idea was to give moral support to the people in the north and to demonstrate that Israel has a right to defend its border. Oppenheimer says that today, two weeks later, a group of this kind would never get organized.

"The consensus is already wearing down," he says. As the movement's spokesman, Oppenheimer has already prepared the protest. "When we decide to become active, I will propose the slogan, 'A strong Israel is an Israel that knows when to stop,'" he says. The activity will be based on extreme patriotism. That is the challenge - how to come out with a position that is not in the consensus and yet remain a legitimate part of the discourse."

Except that there is another reason for the passive position taken by the Zionist left: Peace Now is in no hurry to start protests while the Labor Party is in power or the coalition, even if its leadership thinks that there is good reason to do so. Especially because if they did so, they would not have much of a following. That was the case in the days of Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin, and that is how it is now, when the defense minister is the leader of the Labor Party. Peace Now is willing to admit that they would be far more likely to rush out and protest if the defense minister were Benjamin Netanyahu or Shaul Mofaz.

But Amir Peretz, among the first leaders of Peace Now, is the defense minister, and even though some have expressed disappointment with him in closed meetings, no one is eager to do so publicly. However, Mossi Raz, who also serves on the executive of Meretz, does not hesitate: "Every time someone mentions that Peretz comes from Peace Now, it makes my blood boil," he says. "Yuval Steinitz was also once a member of Peace Now, and as far as I am concerned, they're both in the same place now. This is a time when it is more important to be smart than right."

At this point, the government can still allow itself to bask in the warm consensus it is enjoying. But there are cracks in that consensus, this time, not over morality, but over considerations of profit and loss.