Where They Draw the Line

It's not true that there is no peace camp; it just doesn't know how to formulate its new message. Lily Galili reports on signs of life on the left

Ma'aleh Miyus (which roughly translates as "Upper Disgust," is the name of a new settlement that members of a new movement, calling itself "Green Line - Students Set the Border," intend to establish in the Rose Garden opposite the Knesset. Their purpose is to demand "an immediate end to the occupation for the sake of Israel's future."

The movement was formed two months ago in a most unlikely place - during the annual memorial rally for Yitzhak Rabin in Tel Aviv. "I felt like I couldn't go on," recalls Itamar Raz, a 22-year-old philosophy, economics and political science student from Hebrew university. "I expected some clear statements from a leadership, but all we got were some songs. I was furious."

Wandering through the crowd, Raz found he wasn't alone. He bumped into another HU student, Avner Inbar, who had exactly the same feelings. "We've got to do something," they said to each other. The next day, they called a meeting at the university and were surprised to discover a large turnout. "We also accepted the axiom that everyone had turned right," they said. "But it's simply not true. The reality is everyone is sitting at home, thinking they're the last of the leftists. We don't have any leadership and nobody to speak for us. We felt abandoned. So we decided to do something."

Since then, Green Line has initiated several actions. Three weeks ago, they sent a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: "We, the generation that grew up in a senseless war in which innocent people on both sides are being killed daily, refuse to believe there's no solution ... we hereby declare a renewed public campaign against the policies of occupation and settlement, and call on the Israeli public to resume action for the Green Line to be the border between Israel and the Palestinian state."

At the same time, they swamped the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway with large posters calling on people to "Give up despair, leave the territories." The slogan, like the positioning of the posters, was meant to respond to the right-wing slogan, "Eliminate Arafat, bring back hope." For a few days there was a poster war between the two sides, with each side pulling down the other's posters. A phone conversation with the Yesha council resulted in a truce. The two slogans now hang next to one another on the road.

Between peace and reconciliation

The history of protest movements in Israel shows that many movements rise and fall even before they manage to get their protest across to the public. It's hard to predict what will happen to Green Line. But the fact that it was established shows that there has been a certain reawakening in the peace camp. In the discourse between the various movements, in electronic bulletin boards through e-mail, that reawakening is turning into news. The reports sometimes sound a little like a doctor reporting an improvement in a critically ill patient.

But the assumption that there is no longer a peace movement because the entire public turned right, is simply not true. What has changed is the sentiment, not the ambition for a political solution based on two states for two peoples. Between July 2000 (when the Camp David summit took place) and December 2001, Dr. Yaakov Shamir of the Communications Department and the Truman Institute at Hebrew University and Dr. Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Public Opinion in Ramallah, conducted a series of three parallel public opinion surveys, looking at the attitudes of the Jewish and Arab public in Israel and Palestinian public opinion in the territories. Despite the intifada, despite the terror, and despite the atmosphere of "there's nobody to talk to" that government spokesmen try so hard to nurture, there has been surprisingly little change in the proportion of Jews who believe in the possibility of a permanent peace.

In July 2000, some 55 percent of the Jews surveyed believed in that possibility; by July 2001, the figure had declined to 50 percent, and in December 2001, there was another decline, to about 46 percent. The data show that despite the public image - and within the peace camp itself - the intifada has had only a limited impact on the basic attitudes of the Jewish population in Israel.

What has changed is the belief in the possibility of reconciliation. From July 2000 to December 2001, the number of those "who don't believe in reconciliation, even if peace is achieved," rose from 27 percent to 36 percent. A large percentage of the public is losing its faith in reconciliation, even if there is a political agreement. In the past, peace and reconciliation were regarded as synonymous. Now the public distinguishes between the two.

It's along that seam, between support for a political agreement and lack of faith in reconciliation, that the peace camp is now tottering, trying to turn the hesitant steps into a march. It's not true that there is no peace camp: it just doesn't know exactly how to formulate its new message to the public. In recent years, peace movement activists were involved in reconciliation activities, on the assumption that peace was at hand. Now it has to go back to basics, in an environment in which the word "peace" has lost its meaning.

"Our big problem is that we haven't been able to get through to the public with a rational alternative message," says Prof. Arie Arnon, a founder of Peace Now. "But before that, we need to rehabilitate the camp itself. Peace Now has always been a movement that reacted, and that has to change. Waiting for a ripe moment in which to act paralyzes day-to-day activity."

A small demonstration on Saturday night outside the prime minister's residence proved how difficult it is for the peace camp to satisfy its own membership. After the house demolitions last Thursday in Rafah, which shocked the left, the demonstration looked out of place. The slogans and chants against the occupation and the settlements did not appear to be connected to reality. Even the protest song sung during the Lebanon war, and rewritten to say "Come down airplane and take us to Hebron, we'll fight for Sharon and go home in a coffin" (which rhymes in Hebrew), sounded anachronistic. Nobody was talking about the house demolitions in the refugee camp. The same demonstration could have taken place two years ago or seven, or for that matter, seventeen.

Dispersing the fog

Nonetheless, something is going on in the peace camp. The best thing that's happened recently was Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer being elected chairman of the Labor Party. Now that a politician so far removed from the peace camp is heading the "left," new blood has been rushing into the sclerotic veins of the camp.

The history of the peace camp shows that national unity governments paralyze it, but the change at the head of the Labor Party dispersed some of the fog created by the unity government. Weeks of relative quiet, accompanied by morally inexplicable IDF operations, seemed to have awakened some of the activists who had been hunkered down at home during the past year.

The most profound change has been the renewal of joint activities with Palestinians, by all the peace movements, led by the Peace Coalition. It appears that the Palestinians also understood that by suspending these activities over the past year, they were killing the Israeli peace camp and shooting themselves in the foot.

The Peace Coalition, in which Peace Now is the driving force, is an umbrella organization of most of the peace groups, along with the parliamentary opposition, including all of Meretz, and the Labor doves, led by Yossi Beilin. In recent months, the coalition has found an ally on the Palestinian side, with people like Sari Nusseibeh, Yasser Abed Rabbo, Rassan al-Khatib, and Hanan Ashrawi. The Israeli-Palestinian coalition was born at a meeting between Peace Now leader Janet Aviad, Beilin and Abed Rabbo in Washington two months ago. This week it is planning a joint meeting of its two steering committees - Israeli and Palestinian - to formulate plans for public actions, with the Clinton Plan as their joint platform.

Two weeks ago, far more people than expected showed up at a meeting of the Peace Coalition at Sari Nusseibeh's offices at the New Imperial Hotel. Along with Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, MK Roman Bronfman and all the Meretz MKs, there were veteran Israeli peace activists and new Palestinian activists who had never before attended such an encounter. Dozens of people were left outside, with no room inside for everyone. The crowning moment was the signing of yet another joint statement.

The Palestinian community apparently sees great political significance in such statements. For many of the Israeli activists, however, it was a mistake - not only because of the large number of joint statements that seem so ineffective, but also because of the feeling that a joint statement seems to end the process, or at least creates a sense of accomplishment when nothing has actually changed. The peace camp's grass roots are indeed ready to hear new ideas. But more importantly, it needs a sense of momentum and a feeling that there's someone to talk to on the other side, without statements that end the process of dialogue.

An indifferent local press

While the meeting was underway at the New Imperial Hotel, across town there was a big march by the Coalition of Women for Peace and various peace groups from Israel and the rest of the world, which ended with an unexpectedly large rally outside Jaffa Gate. The two events won impressive media coverage around the world.

But the Israeli media ignored both events, as it ignores most of the peace movement's efforts. "Our media work according to the public mood, not according to objective analysis of the circumstances," complains Dr. Yaron Ezrahi, of the political science department at Hebrew University and the Truman Institute. "The left doesn't have any influence right now in the public mood, so the media ignore it. And by doing so they betray their profession. Just like the politicians, the press reads the public opinion surveys to find out what it should do. Instead of confronting the public with an analysis of reality it holds up a mirror in which it sees its own reflection. That's nice, but it really doesn't help the public."

The public relations committee of the Israeli peace coalition is scheduled to meet in the next few days. The committee includes Sarid, Beilin, Haim Oron of Meretz, Tzali Reshef and Didi Remez of Peace Now, and an advertising expert close to the movement. They'll be working out a marketing campaign for their ideas. Among other things, there is Beilin's proposal to organize busloads of peace activists to travel to Jordan and Egypt, as well as delegations to Europe, to put on display "the alternative of the other Israel." But the real target is local public opinion on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian.

This coming Saturday, some 30 field activists from the Israeli Peace Coalition in Jerusalem and another 30 from the Palestinian peace coalition in Jerusalem, plan to meet to discuss future activities, including street demonstrations. If that works, it will be the first time that Palestinian peace activists take to the streets in their communities. More than ever, both sides now depend on each other to prove that there's someone to talk to. But before that, the peace camp needs something to say.