When examining the question of how the events of the past eight months - the election of Hamas, the escalation in the occupied territories and the war in Lebanon - have affected the Israeli "peace camp," one is hard-pressed to resist the temptation to point to superficial public opinion polls and conclude, yet again, that its public support has continued to erode. A conclusion of this sort, however valid, is unhelpful in devising strategy, for which a broader appraisal is required.
Examination of the Israeli political construct through the prism of "left" and "right" is somewhat anachronistic, ignoring fundamental changes in Israeli public opinion that have taken place over the past six years. Some Israelis still define themselves, ideologically, as leftists or rightists, but they are a minority, comprising no more than 40 percent of the public (with the right slightly stronger than the left). In addition, these ideological cores are not prone to major shifts in attitudes or voting behavior and they present a challenge in terms of mobilization, not conviction.
The rest of the Israeli public, the "center," is a loose, fickle and non-ideological group of swing voters that began developing in earnest in the 1990s and grew during the second intifada. It was finally forged by one of the most successful "wedge campaigns" in Israeli political history. Ariel Sharon's disengagement agenda split apart or created a "wedge" in the support base of opposing political groups, destroyed many of the remaining "tribal" voting patterns and created Kadima.
By and large, this public is convinced of the existential necessity of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, however, it is also convinced that this solution is not feasible, at least in the foreseeable future. The perceived feasibility of a negotiated solution was torn to shreds by Ehud Barak's all-or-nothing maneuver at Camp David II and the outbreak of the intifada, while faith in the feasibility of a unilateralism as a solution was significantly weakened by the events of the summer in Gaza and Lebanon.
Since 2000, groups such as the Peace Coalition and the Geneva Initiative have spent millions of dollars on advertising campaigns advocating a negotiated solution to the conflict. While sometimes effective in mobilizing the left, these campaigns have had only a marginal impact on the center. Realizing that the major challenge lay in convincing the public of the feasibility of this solution, the campaigns focused on the existence of a Palestinian partner for its implementation.
However, as the intifada intensified, the Palestinian Authority unraveled, and support for Fateh diminished, no amount of advertising could convince Israelis that the personas presented possessed sufficient political power to actually implement an agreement.
The "no-partner" environment has entrenched further since the beginning of this year and, at first glance, it seems that the "peace camp" is devoid of options for effective action aimed at political change. For most of us, however, inaction is not an option. Wasting energy and resources on activities that have proven ineffective in the past is an alternative, but not a particularly attractive one.
Another possibility is to shift focus to modes of action on the ground in the occupied territories that have had measurable success since the "peace process" began coming apart. These are mainly led by watchdog groups and human-rights organizations, such as Physicians for Human Rights, Bimkom, B'Tselem, Settlement Watch and many others.
Their common denominator is a belief that continuous and incremental policy change leads eventually to political change and that policy change can be achieved through media discourse. Their advantage is that they are not dependent on specific political conjectures, on variable diplomatic outcomes and on the political performance of the other side. In addition, they are extremely cost-effective, relying on precision PR, litigation and lobby. Most importantly, they contribute to a slowing of the dehumanization and bestiality that has been gathering speed as a by-product of the conflict and protect democratic fundamentals critical to any future. They keep the door open to dialogue to the growing number of Palestinians who have never met an Israeli not clad in uniform or living in a settlement.
Structurally, the government of Israel is vulnerable to policy-oriented civic action. Faulty planning and decision-making mechanisms have created a culture of government which deals with only the most pressing problems, as they occur. The media is often the arbiter of which problems are the most pressing, and effective watchdog projects have used the media to place Israeli-Palestinian policy issues on top of the public agenda. The lame duck post-Lebanon Kadima-Labor government is doubly susceptible. Witness how it has been recently forced into action again on two issues requiring an expenditure of precious political capital - the outposts and protection of Palestinian olive harvesters.
Policy-oriented projects have an ability to manipulate the media to a degree currently unattainable by "peace" campaigns. The Israeli press does not have the investigative capacity (or will) for first-hand research into the intricacies of complex Israeli-Palestinian issues such as the separation barrier, Jerusalem and settlement policy. Therefore, it "eats from the hand" of any credible provider of information. Professional watchdog projects provide information that balances that provided by the government. In addition, through sophisticated use of exclusivity, they often use packaged information to actually shape the agenda.
"Hasbara" is a Hebrew word that, in its political connotation, defies translation. Beyond being a euphemism for propaganda, it is a symptom of a widely held concept that Israel's problems will be solved if "we just find a way to tell our story in a convincing manner," regardless of policy and the reality on the ground. In order to understand how deeply rooted this attitude is, one only had to listen to Israeli leaders desperately calling for more and better "hasbara" as the government and army bungled the war in Lebanon strategically, tactically and diplomatically.
Over the years its seems that we in the Israeli peace camp have also been afflicted by the "hasbara" syndrome, forgetting that, ultimately, political change can only be brought about by a sustained struggle for positions of strength in the power structure. Given the current political environment and inter-relationship between the Israeli, government, media, and public, it may be time to consider focusing our efforts and resources on using the media not to convince Israelis of "the need for peace" or the existence of a "partner for peace," but to directly tackle the policies which have enabled the occupation to exist for so long.