The View from Jerusalem: The Israeli Peace Movement During the Peace Negotiations With Arafat

By Adam Keller

Since June, the settlers have been mobilizing, with increasingly bigger demonstrations. But there was no comparable mobilization of peace-minded Israelis.

Some completely distrusted Barak - especially those monitoring the West Bank situation and finding the occupation was business-as-usual nastiness, with settlements continuing to expand with government funding. "Defend Barak against the settlers? No, thank you. Better confront the occupation which Barak is implementing - the house demolitions, the denial of water to the Palestinians, the creation of bypass roads at the expanse of Palestinian land."

On the other side of the peace spectrum were those who felt the Prime Minister was doing fine and the settler demonstrations were just pin-pricks. Barak himself helped create this impression; he acted supremely confident and unperturbed. (Rabin had also acted like that in 1995 - but people sometimes have short memories.)

The Israeli peace camp includes people who get more excited about the struggle against the religious domination of Israeli life, and who particularly resent those Rabbis who preach nationalist aggrandizement but also insist that their own disciples be exempted from military service.

With the news that exemption from military service for the religious was about to be enacted into law, (hitherto it was implemented as an administrative measure), a group of reservists started a hunger strike outside the Prime Minister's office. Their protest received enormous media coverage and considerable support - mostly from Barak voters chagrined with the PM's support for the exemption bill. Nevertheless, the protesters' main demand to have the ultra-Orthodox youth conscripted "like everybody else" had no chance of success. The army has more than enough manpower and no desire to conscript the young Orthodox - certainly not against their will. Instead, the idea of abolishing conscription in the year 2000 started to gain ground among mainstream commentators, who pointed out that it was the only practicable way to achieve "equality of service" between secularist and religious. The generals themselves, it appears, are making contingency plans to phase out conscription.

Meanwhile, the young men who had conducted the hunger strike dispersed in frustration, for the Prime Minister had let the exemption bill pass. Hundreds returned their Military Reserve Cards to the Army Command in protest; others, who had been active in Barak's election campaign, wrote to him: "Goodbye, this is the last you will hear of us." This took place one week before President Clinton issued the dramatic summons to Barak and Arafat, to attend the summit in Camp David. The settlers and the right-wing opposition stepped up their rallies.

On the eve of his departure, Barak issued a personal appeal to the peace movement, "Do not abandon the streets to the right-wingers!" And thus it could happen that, during the two weeks of Camp David, representatives of different peace movements gathered repeatedly at the meeting room in the basement of the Kibbutz Movement headquarters in Tel-Aviv, to deliberate at length profound questions, such as: "Has the anger about the Exemption Bill dissipated? Will the masses come? Will enough come to fill the square?"

The Camp David Summit had brought into being a heterogeneous coalition: Barak's own Labourite supporters; the veteran peaceniks of Meretz and Peace Now; the kibbutzniks with their organizational experience and resources; the Blue Shirt youth movements side by side with the more outspoken Gush Shalom activists, willing to suspend their distrust of Ehud Barak and give his peace efforts the benefit of the doubt. The coalition - "Mateh HaShalom," the Peace Headquarters - kicked off to a good start with a rally outside the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem on the second day of the summit. Thousands of enthusiastic youths attended, with speakers from a broad spectrum of the left. There was even documentary footage of the martyred Yitzchak Rabin, projected on a huge screen. When Nava Barak, the PM's wife, waded through the crowd to reach the podium there was much clapping and cheering. There was more cheering when Meretz Leader Yossi Sarid made a critical jab at Barak. Altogether the event was a success - considering the fact that it was conducted at little more than 24 hours' notice and in Jerusalem, which is not exactly a bastion of the peace movement.

It was no substitute for a really big peace rally, the kind that is planned in advance and for which all groups exert themselves to the utmost. For that kind of rally there is already a very familiar location - Tel-Aviv's Rabin Square. Such a rally was, in fact, planned with down-to-the-minute logistical detail; VIP's - politicians, writers, artists, professors, ex-generals who support peace had already been invited and had pledged to come to address the crowd. Chemi Sal of the Kibbutz Movement got the necessary permits from the police and municipal authorities; the mayor agreed to put off a performance of the Israeli Philharmonic, an event for which the municipality had invested considerable sums of money - so as not to have it draw crowds away from the peace rally. Everything was ready - except the big unknown: how many people would come? Would those with grudges against Barak be willing to lay them aside?

The settlers held their own anti-peace rally in that very same place and reportedly gathered some 150,000 participants. Obviously, there should have been a response from the Peace Camp. Just as obviously, a response which would have brought out fewer participants would be a disastrous failure. Could we afford to take the risk? Could we afford to wait and delay? The final upshot was to hold the big rally only after an agreement is achieved: a big televised ceremony on the White House lawn, which would galvanize the public and sweep away the hesitations. Barak himself would be the star speaker ("Bring him directly from the airport to the Square, it will create a dramatic effect").

Barak's people may have had a hidden agenda. A really big peace rally in Israel, prominently reported in the international media, might weaken the PM's position towards Arafat, make it more difficult to claim that the PM could not make concessions because of opposition inside Israel. Better have a rally only after the agreement is signed and sealed ...

And so, since no agreement came about, there wasn't a big rally either.

Instead of a Big Peace Rally

But there were lots of smaller actions. The rallying point throughout the tense two weeks was the Peace Tent established in the Rabin Square, where the Bereaved Families' Forum maintained a constant presence. And activists stood at the junctions of intercity highways, holding up signs "The Majority voted for Peace!" They formed long cavalcades of private cars and bicycles and even went rafting across the Sea of Galilee - with cars, cycles, and rafts all bearing that same slogan. Night after night they put up placards and posters and stickers, occasionally getting into fist-fights with crews from the opposite camp. They set up additional peace tents in Jerusalem and Haifa and confronted right-wingers across police cordons when they swarmed in for their rally in the Rabin Square.

At the Wailing Wall, a Prayer for Peace was initiated by the moderate religious movement Meimad; there were 200 participants, including kibbutzniks who usually don't pray at all, and considerable media attention (political prayers on this spot are almost invariably right-wing). For their part, the Generals for Peace (several hundred ex-generals and ex-colonels, officially known as The Council for Peace and Security) toured the country, speaking to varied audiences and insisting that "territorial concessions for peace are good for Israel."

Perhaps the most important achievement in these two weeks was the intense, unprecedented contact established between bereaved families from both sides of the national divide. These were unforgettable scenes: the visit of the Palestinian families to the Tel-Aviv tent; the hours of prolonged, very emotional dialogue; the march of Israeli and Palestinian parents together through the streets of Tel-Aviv, holding the banner "Barak and Arafat, you have a mandate to take one more step for peace"; the ceremony outside the Apropos Cafe, where a Hamas suicide bomb exploded in March 1997 - addressed by Zehava Rosen, whose daughter was one of those killed in the explosion; the return visit of the Israeli families to the Palestinian Peace Tent, erected in Gaza - all of which took place just before the Camp David negotiations started winding down.

The man who kept the Peace Tent going was Yitzchak Frankenthal - a religious man for whom the tragic circumstances of his son's death gave rise to an overriding sense of personal commitment to peace. "Already I had been in favor of peace - in my mind - but I did not act; I was a 'peace impotent.' I didn't do anything to make what I believed in come true. And then Arik was killed by a Hamas squad. He got killed because there is no peace between the two peoples. So, since then I have been working to bring peace closer. I try to make up for the past."

Non-stop discussions and debates went on all the time, inside the tent and on the pavement outside the entrance: involving people from a variety of peace groups, visiting Palestinians, right-wingers, by-passers attracted by the noise and the big signs. Even when settlers had set up a rival tent on the other side of the square, discussion went on in a restrained and civilized manner - due mostly to Frankenthal's patience, empathy, and willingness to listen.

On the last evening, with news of the summit's failure filling the airwaves, dejected activists gathered at the tent, drawing comfort from each other and listening to "pep-talks." "We lost one round, but the struggle continues." Someone turned on the radio. It was Barak's press conference, transmitted live, where he put the entire blame for the failure on Arafat, using contrived rhetoric. At least for the immediate future, the time had come for a parting of the ways.

There was no overt separation that evening between the activists who had been intensively together for two weeks. But on the following day, the Gush Shalom people were busy drafting and distributing statements condemning Barak's use of threatening language ("We have to be willing to fight"; "Jewish holy sites will never be given up," etc.). At the same time, others organized a support vigil outside the PM's residence. It took place as the TV crews were concentrated at the scene of the just-arrived Barak moving straight through the crowd. He made a more dovish and conciliatory statement; a youth holding a hand-written sign "Continuing on the way to peace" was seen on the TV screen behind his back.

Bereaved Parents' Forum.

The Bereaved Parents' Forum undertook an especially delicate task: to try and convince the Orthodox community of the need to make a compromise in Jerusalem. Ads in right-wing papers argued, on the basis of Biblical quotations, that God's dwelling among His People in Jerusalem will not be achieved by force and material rule, but primarily by moral behavior, and that peace achieved through a compromise in Jerusalem and saving lives is not only compatible with the Commandments of Judaism but constitutes their fulfillment. According to Yitzchak Frankenthal, there have been many responses - some of them positive, and quite a few of the negative ones opening the possibility of a fruitful dialogue.

Meanwhile, the specter of war woke up the Yesh Gvul movement, which had an important role in organizing the reserve soldiers who refused to take part both in the Lebanon War and, later, in the clampdown on the Intifada. The group instituted a regular weekly vigil outside the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, with the slogan "There are wars to which we will not go!" Signatures are being collected on a petition declaring any war caused by the government's refusal to withdraw to the 1967 borders to be illegitimate.

The official Four Mothers organization - which had disbanded itself after its great success, the withdrawal from Lebanon - came back into action. In an ad it heartily thanked Barak for "having extracted our children from the Lebanese hell" and implored him to now give "the same kind of intensive treatment" to the achievement of peace with the Palestinians. No Prime Minster could afford to ignore such an appeal, taking into account that Four Mothers are generally credited with having influenced government policy more than any other grassroots organization in Israeli history.

Bereaved Families, Mosha Gamzo Israel 73130 <frankent@netvision.net.il>.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2000, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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