Narrowing Differences Within the Israeli Peace Movement


Much attention has been directed recently by commentators to a crisis in the ranks of the Israeli left (for reasons that cannot be examined here, in Israel, the terms ‘left’ and ‘peace camp’ are practically synonymous). The present difficulty in the peace camp results from the fact that many in the peace camp have uncritically adopted the official Israeli version blaming Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, wholly and exclusively, for the breakdown in the peace process and the ensuing explosion of violence.

However, a sharp debate is taking place right now (better later than never) within the peace movement as to the authenticity and the honesty of the official explanation of the reasons for the current crisis. Though these are indeed difficult times for the peace camp, a historical perspective of its workings and development does give cause for some optimism.

It is vital to appreciate the fact that there are two main components in the peace camp. Differences of opinion between them are not a new thing. Actually, the debate between the moderate, mainstream section of the peace movement and its much smaller more militant wing has quite a history. The much larger mainstream section is, of course, personified by Peace Now, but also encompasses, among other forces, MERETZ and the doves in the Labor Party. The radicals on the left, admittedly a small minority in the peace movement, express themselves through a cluster of single issue formations such as End the Occupation (and its successors and predecessors), Gush Shalom, the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace and Women in Black, the anti-militarist groups such as Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit) and New Profile and other similar groupings. These formations include many activists with a Marxist background. For purposes of brevity we will talk about two main currents of thinking in the peace movement, the moderate mainstream and the militant left.

Let the Good King Take Care of Them

During the seventies, the mainstream was convinced that it had an ideal partner for peace in the person of the late King Hussein. As it became clear that the Israeli control of the conquered territories was not going to be ‘the most liberal occupation in history,’ the mainstream pushed for an Israeli-Jordanian peace accord which would, in their opinion, solve the question of the West Bank and Gaza Arabs.

The left in the peace movement toiled, with little initial success, to explain that the Palestinians had successfully shaped a clear, separate national identity of their own. The king himself was in the process of realizing that the Palestinians in the occupied territories were going to determine their own destiny. The pro-Hussein slant of the moderate peace movement reflected its refusal to countenance another independent state west of the Jordan. The left argued for its part that Palestinian self-determination was a basic element in any solution.

The militants made the case that various currents in the Palestinian community had combined into their own national liberation movement in the form of the PLO. The mainstream maintained till almost the end of the eighties that the PLO was simply a terrorist outfit. However, at the end of 1988, the mainstream came to understand (with the help of changes in PLO policy, to tell the truth) that there was indeed ‘someone to talk with’ in the person of the PLO. However, even after recognizing that a settlement would have to be worked out with the Palestinians, the mainstream continued to adamantly adhere to the main outline of the national consensus regarding a future settlement: Israel would never return to the 1967 borders, a united Jerusalem would remain the eternal capital of Israel and no Palestinian refugees would ever return to Israel.

The left in the peace movement explained patiently that these pre-conditions é later reincarnated in Barak’s famous ‘red lines’ – were a ‘non-starter’ and meant the continuation of the conflict. For peace, the left argued, Israel would have to return to the 1967 borders (and this principle would be the basis for working out specific agreements on Palestinian sovereign presence in Jerusalem and dismantling of the settlements). It would also be necessary to address the Palestinian refugees, if only for the simple reason that no Palestinian leadership could agree to end the conflict on the basis of the existing status of the refugees who happened to comprise the expropriated and neglected majority of the Palestinian people.

Moderates Face the Real Parameters of the Palestinian Problem

As the Oslo process moved towards final status talks, more and more groups and individuals in the mainstream peace movement advanced serious proposals for ending the conflict. However, the majority of the mainstream held firm against the 1967 borders and the idea of any Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem. One recalls that as late as the summer of 1999, Sarid called a meeting of the MERETZ Executive to delegitimize a left-leaning faction centered in Jerusalem which dared to support the concept of two capitals in Jerusalem.

At this point our narrative becomes a bit ludicrous. Though it is not exactly clear when the mainstream peace movement moved openly and clearly to support for the 1967 borders and two capitals in Jerusalem, this is their acknowledged position, as of now. We can say, ex post facto, that the mainstream was firmly behind Barak when he made his ‘most generous offer’ to the Palestinians, and that the moderates assumed that the offer was indeed based on a return to the 1967 borders. It has to be stated here that the exact nature of Barak’s offer is the subject of serious controversy. At any rate, the moderates, having finally embraced the idea of peace without any annexations, previously supported by the militants in the peace movement, turned their fury on Arafat and the Palestinians. They accepted the official line that this was the offer rejected by the Palestinians. In truth, the hegemonic forces in the mainstream never actually came out clearly for a return to the June 1967 borders or for the recognition of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem, until Barak’s version of this policy was put on the negotiation table. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, the mainstream is still largely convinced that Barak actually suggested returning to the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem. At any rate, they have retreated from their previous position against returning to the June 1967 borders, including Jerusalem.

We have therefore reason to hope most of the moderate peace movement will not retreat from these new core positions and will support them when and if serious negotiations resume. Thus, in a rather convoluted way, the mainstream took additional steps towards a more consistent peace program. We tend to believe that the new positions will outlive what one can only hope is a temporary aberration. After all, how long can the left survive if it continues to participate in an orgy of self-debasement and accusations against Arafat and the Palestinians, based on hearsay and the flimsiest of evidence.

Barak’s Most Generous Offer é an Enigma Wrapped in a Question Mark

Anyone who has carefully followed the breakdown of the peace process under the ‘masterful’ leadership of Ehud Barak knows that real developments in those negotiations are enveloped in a cloud of misinformation, misunderstanding and miscalculations. And that is putting the best possible gloss on the events. Recent articles by Dr. Menahem Klein, Dr. Ron Pundak, Prof. Danny Rabinowitz and Dr. Yossi Beilin, among others, have initiated a vital process of dismantling and disproving the official account of the breakdown that led to the end of the peace process. These and other voices in the peace camp insist that events immediately after Camp David and their aftermath can in no way be interpreted as a simple refusal of the Palestinians to accept the bountiful gifts showered on them by Barak and Co. To support this analysis, it is not necessary to prove that Arafat is an easy going, easy to please customer é and in truth why should anyone expect him to be like that. All that is necessary is to say that Arafat had reasonable cause to reject the real offer on the table in favor of further talks and further negotiations. As strange as this sounds for many who have accepted the official version, Arafat’s rejection of the Camp David package did not end the negotiations which did resume and continue up to the last days before Barak was voted out of office.

His decision to turn down Clinton-Barak was based on the presumption that there would be further talks. In fact, it was a perfectly legitimate negotiating tactic and actually bore real fruit on the Jerusalem issue in the months after the Camp David fiasco in July. By December, Clinton had seriously revised his Jerusalem suggestions in favor of the Palestinian position é making Barak quite unhappy. Thus it was not Arafat who broke off the negotiations. Attempts to bypass the still serious obstacles were still going on when Barak was voted out of office.

It should be stated here that Barak’s decision to call elections in October 2000 really did throw a spanner in the diplomatic works. Why Barak decided to call elections is another of those unsolved mysteries surrounding his last months in office. Strangely, Barak conferred only with his family before his decision to resign and go to the polls. Whatever Barak’s calculations or miscalculations really were, it was his defeat at the polls which put an end to the peace process that Arafat is presumed to have murdered. Simply stated, Arafat never broke off the talks. They were adjourned as a result of some pretty macabre developments in the Israeli political arena.

The powerful ‘media-frame’ sold quite successfully to the general public and large sections of the peace movement depicts a well-planned second stage of the Palestinian crime against peace. According to this presentation, Arafat and the Palestinians, after they had deliberately strangled the diplomatic hope for peace, turned around and in a typical act of malice, commenced hostilities against Israel. ‘They’ trampled on ‘our’ hopes for peace and instead forced ‘us’ into another round of armed conflict.

This account can be deconstructed from either end. The official Israeli version of the demise of the peace process is, as we have seen, unclear and unconvincing. Even the most critical approach to Arafat’s hesitation and mistakes has nothing in common with the Israeli accusation. The theory that the Intifada was an Arafat-Palestinian Authority initiative, launched by the Palestinians to gain by arms what they were unable to achieve by peace, is close to being preposterous. I doubt if one can find a single Palestinian living in the occupied territories who believes that the Palestinian Authority conceived, planned, organized and launched the Intifada, a hypothesis, which were it true would actually bolster its prestige in Palestinian quarters. The Intifada and the forms it took were clearly and directly an expression of the Palestinian street’s protest against the occupation and the miserable conditions of existence fostered before, during, and after the peace process on the Palestinian masses.

Some Israelis admit that Arafat did not start the Intifada but insist that he is to blame for not quelling it. You can even hear this argument in the peace camp from people who would like a sanitized peace process which could go on forever undisturbed by any amount of suffering and frustration of millions of Palestinians under occupation.

Barak and his circle are mainly responsible for the breakdown of the talks and for the outbreak of the Intifada and the horrendous repression that fed its ranks and assured its growth. But even if, for the sake of argument, one is willing to assume that the Palestinian leadership shared some of the blame for past events, is that any reason for the mainstream of the peace movement to retreat into the ranks of those who support an open enemy of peace and negotiations like Sharon? Neither the breakdown in the peace process nor the outbreak of Intifada will change the basic contours of the settlement that must be worked out between the two peoples, when and if they resume negotiations.

Conditions for Peace

And this brings us back to the conditions for peace. Fortunately, it appears that it will be unnecessary for the peace camp in its entirety to go back and argue about the June 1967 borders and two sovereignties in Jerusalem. It only remains, on these two issues, to insist on a fair and logical implementation of the principle of peace without annexations.

We, do still have, in the peace movement a rather thorny issue that is a major source of divisiveness. As a whole, the moderate section of the peace movement became convinced, surrounded by the falling wreckage of the Oslo process and the new Intifada, that the Palestinian insistence on the Right of Return was a particularly specious act of bad faith. The spiritual and literary leadership of Zionist doves were adamant that recognition of the right of return means a sure and quick end of the Jewish state. There is also some reason to suspect that the deleterious impact of Clinton’s absolute and total negation of any repatriation stiffened the posture of many Israeli doves and made them feel that they had reached the end of their capacity for compromise.

There is no reason to question their sincerity. However, the Zionist doves were sincere when they said Hussein is our partner, the PLO is a terrorist organization, Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli rule and any return to the June 1967 borders is suicidal. The mainstream peace movement has come to acknowledge stubborn political reality. Once again, there is every reason to believe that before long, the mainstream of the Israeli peace movement will rethink its knee-jerk reaction to developments concerning the rights of the Palestinian refugees.

Reliable objective information on the negotiations regarding the refugee issue is hard to find. Just a few weeks back there was a public dispute between Yossi Sarid, an important leader of the Zionist doves, who views the right of return as an impassable obstacle and between Yossi Beilin, a no less important figure in Zionist dove circles, who reported on the very same occasion, ‘based on personal knowledge’, that serious progress on the refugee issue had been made in the last round of Israel-Palestinian negotiations at Taba in December 2000.

This progress was based on the simple fact that a solution to the refugee problem recognizing the right to return would be implemented on the basis of an agreement with Israel and taking Israeli needs and requirements into account. This being the official Palestinian position, there is room for a constructive and creative compromise on this highly emotive issue. Now, it is true that there exist certain ‘maximalist’ circles in the Palestinian community which hope to keep the conflict alive by insisting that every refugee, all three million, will return immediately to his or her home in Israel. But if the Palestinian Authority and Arafat are interested in a serious compromise honoring their rights but addressing Israeli anxieties, why should sincere peace loving Israelis continue to adhere to the ‘not a single refugee’ formula, a formula both unjust and unrealistic? One hopes for a logical shift in opinion in the mainstream peace movement é which has recently become, for the better, a more and more heterogeneous affair. Recognition that Israel must do its part towards ending the suffering of the Palestinian refugees would be a welcome element in a general return to sanity in the Israeli body politic.

Reuven Kaminer is the author of Politics of Protest: The Israeli Peace Movement and the Intifada (1995).