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Peace Now and The Failure of the Israeli Peace Movement

Last Saturday evening, I attended a memorial for Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig, a young scholar of democratic theory who was killed by a disturbed rightist’s grenade in February, 1983, at a demonstration in front of the prime minister’s office. … Read More

By / February 21, 2008

Last Saturday evening, I attended a memorial for Peace Now activist Emil Grunzweig, a young scholar of democratic theory who was killed by a disturbed rightist’s grenade in February, 1983, at a demonstration in front of the prime minister’s office. Ten years ago, the fifteenth anniversary of his death, hundreds came. This time, a few dozen, perhaps.

Many have noticed the decline in the profile of Israel’s peace movement during the past 20 years. What could be expected when Israelis are so obviously spurned in the region and under attack by bombers and missiles? Does it not seem unrealistic to expect a peace movement to get traction without a change in Arab attitudes?

Imagine, though, the effect of an Arab leader coming to the Knesset today and delivering a speech like the one given by Anwar Sadat on November 20, 1977. Apart from the stirring compassion of the speech, notice Sadat’s approach to the so-called “core issues,” now ostensibly being negotiated under the Annapolis framework. They are, more or less, the lines of policy one has heard for years from the Palestine Authority and from the Arab League’s 2002 initiative.

Which brings me back to the Israeli peace movement. The waning of interest in Peace Now seems much more the result of its belated success than its failure. Why take to the streets when the government, and the broad center—Tel-Aviv, professionals, the more educated—now espouse your approach, if only in principle? How different are Peace Now’s ideas—and Sadat’s, for that matter—from the approach Ehud Olmert’s close friend Vice-Premier Haim Ramon has hinted at in various interviews?

Menachem Begin, remember, responded to Sadat with a vision of a region in which “we shall all live together—the Great Arab Nation in its States and its countries, and the Jewish People in its Land, Eretz Israel—forever and ever.” This was code for the Likud’s platform. (Here is Begin’s whole speech: judge for yourself.) There was no occupation to acknowledge in Begin’s response. Israel would deal with the Arab states, not with the Arab stateless. Jerusalem, too, belonged to the Jews; other religions would have access to their holy places.

Nor was there a Palestinian people. (“I invite genuine spokesmen of the Palestinian Arabs” to come along with King Hussein, etc.; I remember distinctly that Begin used the Hebrew phrase Arviyeh Eretz Yisrael, “the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael,” though it is translated differently here.) “We took no foreign land,” Begin instructed Sadat; “We returned to our Homeland. The bond between our People and this Land is eternal.” Oppose this way of looking at Jewish history, Begin went on, and you were being cavalier about the holocaust.

The key to all of this was settlements. Eretz Yisrael still beckoned. Then, the number of Jewish settlers beyond Jerusalem and Gush Etzion was only about 2000; by 1979, 6000. Today it is a quarter of a million. I remember thinking that Sadat’s face said it all: listening to Begin, he looked as stricken as many of us felt.

And it was in response to Begin’s response that 348 junior officers signed a letter imploring the prime minister to seize the moment. Their letter launched Peace Now, and prompted demonstrations that numbered in the hundreds of thousands in the late 7os and eraly 80s.

PEACE NOW'S EFFORTS did not save the ensuing peace process, which foundered largely on the settlements policy. Settlements precluded any implementation of the Palestinian autonomy plan that Sadat and President Carter extracted from Begin at Camp David. They were the reason why Sadat refused to travel to Oslo with Begin to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. They were a major reason for the collapse of Oslo. Olmert has claimed to have stopped settlements, too—though not within the extensive boundaries of Jerusalem. His policy is too little and far too late.

The real problem, now, is nothing Peace Now activists can do anything about. They have won the battle of public opinion in Israel, at least among those who are not in the third of the country for whom the process of forming opinions is itself suspect.

Olmert knows what he must do eventually, but he likes his job, and does not like enraging the residents of Jerusalem, who support the settlers, and who make up a good many of the third in question; he continues to develop Jerusalem’s suburbs across the Green Line and pander to Shas, his rightist coalition ally, while undermining the already shaken reputation of Mahmud Abbas. He has asked, and apparently got, assurances from Secretary Rice that the US will back his desire to leave this problem of Jerusalem “to last,” as if there is a first that can be negotiated without including East Jerusalem in Palestine’s borders. As if blurriness about US policy and interests helps him.

Haaretz chief editor David Landau, for one, had enough a little while back . He told Rice in Jerusalem that his "wet dream” would be that the US “raped” Israel, that is, simply imposed a settlement. Landau may have broken protocol (and also revealed the repressed state of mind of former British yeshiva students). Anyway, he lost his job last week. But what the peace negotiations need, at least for now, is not just a clear head but a strong hand. And the US—still unable to grasp that in getting tough about the shape of a deal it is actually strengthening Israeli leaders who claim the need for peace now—is getting hustled for the 30th year in row.

* Cross-posted at BernardAvishai.com 

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