by Hillel Schenker
From the vantage point of June 1998, the fact that Mordechai Bar-On chose to conclude his history of the Israeli peace movement with a description of the famous September 13, 1993 Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn is problematic, to put it mildly. That moment of psychological breakthrough, the handshake between the two national leaders who had been demonized by large segments of the respective opposing community, served as a vivid, graphic expression of mutual recognition between the two national movements which had fought over the Land of Israel/Palestine for at least a century. In Israel, many viewed that moment as the ultimate vindication, even triumph, of the Israeli peace movement.
Yet nearly five years later, two years into the reign of Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the peace process is facing a severe crisis, and much of the confidence which had been built between Israelis and Palestinians during the initial phases of the Oslo process has been undermined.
Despite this incongruity, Bar-an's In Pursuit of Peace; A History of the Israeli
Peace Movement is definitely worth reading. It is the most comprehensive and inclusive description and analysis of the Israeli peace movement that has been written to date.
Dr. Bar-On is not a "new historian" who is reinterpreting the history of Zionism and the Israeli-Arab conflict. However, he is an activist/scholar whose own evolution from senior army officer to Zionist functionary to peace activist makes him particularly well-suited to write a mainstream history of the Israeli peace movement.
Before and After 1967
Bar-On's chapter headings reflect the chronological nature of his approach. In "Zero-Sum: The First Two Decades," he notes that "what one might generally refer to as 'peace forces' were neither significant... nor influential... The price Israel was asked to pay for peace was viewed by most Israelis as too high to be seriously considered, and the bellicose rhetoric that emanated from Arab capitals made peace sound unattainable ... " He focuses on three pioneering initiatives: Uri Avnery and his Ha'olam Hazeh magazine, Simha Flapan and New Outlook, and World Jewish Congress functionary Joe Golan's involvement in Florence Mayor Giorgio La Pira's Mediterranean encounters. He ignores the fact that between 1956 and 1966, much of the small Israeli peace movement's energies was devoted to the struggle against the military government over the Israeli Arabs.
"The Debate over Peace Options in the Labor party, 1967-70," and "Professors for Peace," focus on the 1967 Six-Day War and its aftermath. Bar¬-On describes the paralyzing post-war euphoria on the Israeli side, characterized by the creation of the Greater Israeli Movement, Defense Minister Dayan's famous "waiting for a telephone call from King Hussein" statement, and Golda Meir's intransigence. He describes the beginnings of soul searching within the Labor party and intellectual circles, and his description of General Secretary Arieh (Lova) Eliav's evolution from mainstream establishment leader to a gadfly peace activist is of particular interest.
"Soon after the 1967 war," he writes, "Eliav resigned his post as deputy minister and received the permission of [Prime Minister] Eshkol and Dayan to spend half a year exploring the new territories with the explicit intention of 'learning the problem of the Arabs of the territories.'" At the end of six months, Eliav reported to Eshkol that he had "discovered in the territories an evolving Palestinian nation with all the trappings which make for a
national movement and people." .
In a booklet published in Hebrew in 1968, he wrote that during the years of struggle between the Zionist movement and the Arabs, "the nucleus of a Palestinian Arab nation, a twin to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, started to appear ... We have to view the Palestinian nation as an evolving fact," he said, and proposed that the Israeli government unequivocally declare that if the Arabs were ready for peace, Israel would be ready to relinquish territory. "The Arab people must know that we shall never suppress the right of the Palestinians for self-determination." This was the first time that such thoughts were uttered by an Israeli leader from the heart of the establishment. While Eshkol and his successor, Golda Meir, did not act on them, Eliav eventually developed his ideas in the influential 1972 book Land of the Hart, formed the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace together with Avnery, Matti Peled and others in 1975, and became the leader of the pro-peace Sheli party in 1977.
Bar-On devotes significant attention to The Movement for Peace and Security, founded by leading Israeli intellectuals, such as Professor Yehoshua Arieli and Professor Jacob Talmon in 1968, who wanted to promote a public debate and challenge "the government's decision not to decide." In June 1969, Arieli said that "We must seek peace in every possible way, and refrain from taking roads which may prevent us from achieving peace. Continued occupation creates a situation which must inevitably corrupt the image of the society.... "
Unfortunately, Bar-On either ignores or underplays the role of more radical individuals and groups during this period, such as Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who warned against the dangers inherent in prolonged occupation almost immediately after the war, the small anti-Zionist Matzpen group who became the first Israeli interlocutors with the PLO, the Siah (New Israeli Left) group that was active in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and such early pro-peace political initiatives as Dr. Gadi Yatziv's Ness party in 1969, and Dr. Meir Pail's Moked party in 1974. The reader frequently has to scour the excellent 85 pages of "Notes" at the end of the book to find even the slightest reference to them.
A Grassroots Peace Movement Emerges
The chapter devoted to the October War (the 1973 Yom Kippur War), the accompanying national trauma and the post-war protest movement initiated by Motti Ashkenazi, sets the stage for the end of the Labor party hegemony in Israeli politics and the emergence of a mass grassroots peace movement following Egyptian President Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977.
The strongest part of Bar-On's book coincides with his own personal entrance into peace activism in 1978. In successive chapters, he describes the emergence of the mass Peace Now movement in 1978, the struggle against the 1982 Lebanon War, the problematic relationship between the peace movement and the Sephardi Jews, and the peace movement's reaction to the Intifada. Despite Bar-0n's personal involvement in Peace Now and the International Center for Peace in the Middle East, he doesn't shy away from criticism of these two groups. He also devotes a fair amount of attention to other, frequently more radical movements, such as Dai La' Kibbush (Enough of the Occupation), Yesh Gvul (There's a Limit), the religious Oz Ve' Shalom (Strength and Peace), the East for Peace, the 21st Year, Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), Women in Black and other expressions of the women's peace movement. His list of interviews (pp. 419-421) indicates that he spoke with a broad cross-section of activists from all of these and other movements.
A small though insightful chapter on "The Israeli-Palestinian Dialogue" sets the stage for the development which led to the post-Gulf War Madrid Conference in 1991 and the Oslo breakthrough in 1993.
In his thought-provoking conclusion, Bar-On notes "three peaks in the development of the Israeli peace movement: the first, during 1978 and 1979, in which peace with Egypt was the focus; the second; during 1982 and 1983, in which protest against the Israeli military involvement in Lebanon took center stage; and the third, during 1988 and 1989, when the call for the recognition of the rights of the Palestinians to self-determination, for negotiations with the PLO, and for an end to the cruel suppression of the Intifada led a majority of Israelis to welcome the beginnings of a process of reconciliation." At its peak, the movement has been able "to mobilize more than 200,000 participants" in its demonstrations, a very impressive percentage of Israeli society.
As for the influence of the movement, Bar-On cites Prime Minister Menachem Begin's comments in 1978 that he was haunted in Camp David by the image of over 100,000 Israelis demonstrating for peace back in Tel Aviv and the 400,OOO-member demonstrations in Tel Aviv, following the massacre at Sabra and Shatila in 1982, which was "a significant factor in the government's decision to establish the Kahan Commission of Inquiry that eventually led to the dismissal of Ariel Sharon as minister of defense. He also cites the remarks of Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi, the official Palestinian spokesperson at the opening of the 1991 Madrid Conference, concerning contacts with the Israeli peace movement that "opened the hearts and minds of many Palestinian leaders to the possibility, indeed the advisability, of a compromise solution."
Bar-On identifies three distinct phases in the Israeli-Egyptian and the Israeli-Palestinian peace processes. During the first phase, most of the efforts are undertaken by NGOs and third-party mediators. In the second phase, official negotiations begin, accompanied by additional third-party mediation efforts and NGO activities aimed at "creating popular support for the prospective conciliation." "In the third phase," he writes, "agreements begin to take shape on the ground," and "the role of NGOs and third-party mediators diminishes."
Since "the Oslo agreement and the signing of the Declaration of Principles between the Israeli prime minister and the chairman of the PLO have ushered in the third phase," how did we arrive at the current gloomy state of affairs?
Bar-On's third phase of implementation of the Oslo accords was based on the premise that both partners to the agreement, the Rabin-Peres government on the Israeli side and the Yasser Arafat-led PLO on the Palestinian side would remain in place. Netanyahu's victory in the 1996 elections undermined the equation. Apparently we needed four more years of a Labor-Meretz dominated government to realize the potential of the Oslo accords and to solidify the Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
Does the Israeli peace movement bear responsibility for the loss? To some degree, but I believe that the primary responsibility lies with the political leadership, particularly that of the Labor party. The 1996 elections were winnable, but all of the pro-Oslo forces underestimated the alienation felt by many Sephardi Jews in the poor neighborhoods and the development towns from the fruits of the peace process, and the general alienation from Israeli society felt by large segments of the Russian immigrants. And Shimon Peres and his team ran a poor campaign, making too many mistakes - the assassination of Yihya Ayyash which produced a wave of Hamas suicide bombers, the bombing of the Lebanese village of Kufr Qana which alienated many Israeli Arabs, the removal of Rabin's assassination from the campaign, a poor performance in the Peres-Netanyahu TV debate, etc ....
A Lack of Clarity?
So how is the Israeli peace movement confronting the new situation created by the rise of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition? At a recent conceptual art exhibition in Tel Aviv entitled Dapei Yamin
(Right-Wing Pages), Professor Moshe Zuckerman filled a notebook with a searing critique of various right¬wing manifestations within Israeli society. He then wrote that "the next few pages will be devoted to the left's response to these developments," Those pages were totally blank.
This, of course, is an exaggeration.
Yet even Bar-On, following Rabin's assassination and before Netanyahu's victory, wrote in his conclusion that "the peace movement appears to the Israeli public, and especially to the Palestinians, to lack resolve and clarity of purpose."
Today, while Peace Now, Gush Shalom and the new Dor Shalom (Peace Generation) and other movements are continuing their activities, most observers believe that the defeat of Netanyahu in the next elections is the key to a revival of the peace process. Yet the Israeli peace movements' achievements should not be discounted. They include the fact that Israeli governmental dialogue with PLO leaders, once taboo, is now an axiomatic factor in Israeli politics, even on the right, and the fact that all public opinion polis consistently indicate that a clear majority of the Israelis believe that a Palestinian state will eventually be established alongside the State of Israel.
One methodological problem with Bar-On's book is that it focuses almost entirely on the Israeli peace activists. It would have been enlightening to have sought out the views of Israeli politicians, Egyptians, Palestinians, Americans, etc., as to the impact of the Israeli peace movement.
The book also contains a number of mistranslations and factual errors that should have been avoided. For example, Bar-On calls the influential soul¬searching book Sinh Lochamim, written by kibbutznik-combatants following the 1967 war "Chats of Combatants." Anyone looking for the book under that title will be totally stymied, since it was published in English under the title "The Seventh Day." As for the origins of New Outlook, he writes that Simha Flapan and other colleagues went to meet Martin Buber in 1958, and the noted philosopher encouraged them to found a monthly journal which would "reach out to the other side." Since the first issue of the magazine was published in July 1957, something is wrong with chronology.
Despite these and other inaccuracies, this book is a valuable addition to the library of anyone concerned with the quest for Israeli-Arab peace.