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From the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 8)

The Crippled Movement

Thorsten Schmitz, Süddeutsche Zeitung (centrist), Munich, Germany, May 19, 2001

Rabin Square in Tel Aviv is the barometer of Israeli society. What happens there moves the nation. In the eight months since the [second] Intifada broke out, there have been two mass demonstrations in the square: Last summer, 100,000 right-wing nationalists and Orthodox settlers came, concerned that then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak might, in the interest of peace, partition Jerusalem and evacuate the Jewish settlements. More recently, 250,000 Israelis gathered on Sunday night to celebrate the Maccabee basketball team’s victory in the European Championship.

The peace movement can only dream of such turnouts for now. Its time seems past. “We were never able to get that many demonstrators to come together,” says an activist who has been working in the Peace Now movement for 30 years. So they would rather not even try—and remain silent in the face of the violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Among leftists and the peace movement, the general feeling is that [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon’s predecessor, Ehud Barak, went further than anyone ever had in making a peace offer, when he met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at Camp David—and was rewarded with violence. Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, says: “The left in Israel, in light of the violence, has imploded. They recognize that the past seven years of peace negotiations have been futile.”

As if crippled, the peace activists of yesterday look on as the army deliberately shoots down Palestinian activists almost on a daily basis despite growing international criticism. For the past several weeks, it has also become a part of the Israeli army’s tactics to march into the autonomous Palestinian territory and destroy Palestinian homes and olive groves, because Palestinian militants have used them to hide out while shooting at Jewish settlers. There were times in Israeli history when thousands of Israelis would have come out to protest such actions, and people would have taken out newspaper ads in protest. But the left and the peace organizations are silent.

Their leading lights, such as writers David Grossman and Amos Oz, are writing articles for the foreign media. In Israel you read and hear nothing from them. Instead, you may find editorials in such conservative mass-circulation papers as Ma’ariv and Yediot Aharonot criticizing Sharon’s purely military tactics and the lack of any political program to end the Intifada. The last major collective action taken by the Israeli left was a half-hearted appeal two weeks before the early elections last February. Voters were asked to choose the lesser of two evils and vote for Barak. The pleading was ignored, and many leftists either did not go to the polls or cast blank ballots. The muted voice of Israel’s left has its roots in a painful recognition: that no one like the assassinated prime minister, Nobel peace laureate, and peace partner of Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, was likely to appear anytime soon—and that Barak, while Rabin’s political godson, was not able to accomplish anything with that legacy.

Not much is happening on the political stage. Sharon’s government is refusing to talk to Arafat in person, while the mission to Ramallah by Sharon’s son Omri did not achieve anything, either. Only Yossi Beilin, the former minister of justice, is trying to keep a minimal level of communication open. Sharon has not asked him to do this, nor does he have a portfolio now, but Beilin has already met with Arafat twice, who has increased his respect for the doves in the Israeli parliament. Last week, for example, Beilin founded, along with a hundred other members of the Knesset, peace activists, scholars, and former Peace Now members, a “Peace Coalition.” This motley crew, which includes, among others, opposition leader Yossi Sarid and former mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, hopes to make itself into an alternative to Sharon’s ice-age policies. Its central demands are the dismantling of Jewish settlements, a resumption of peace talks based on the Jordanian-Egyptian initiative, and the acceptance of the Mitchell Commission’s report. Says Beilin: “We must work against Sharon’s policy. For without any hope for, and efforts toward, peace, Israel will be just an episode in history, and it will be impossible to continue to maintain a viable Jewish state.”


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