Saturday, June 3, 2017

Being a peace activist - after fifty years

(Written for De Brug, Amsterdam, where it will appear in Dutch)
I started being politically involved in the summer of 1969, when I offered myself as a volunteer to do menial work at the elections campaign headquarters of Uri Avnery’s "HaOlam HaZeh / New Force" Party. Uri Avnery, then a radical young Member of the Israeli Parliament, had been one of the first Israelis to call for creating a Palestinian state in the newly-occupied territories. As a matter of fact, it was not this which initially drew me to the party – but rather its opposition to "the rotten old parties" which dominated Israeli politics, as well as the call to separate religion and state. HaOlam HaZeh was, in fact, rather similar to the Dutch D-66 party, launched at much the same time. It was only gradually, over a period of some two years, that I fully accepted the idea of Israel making peace with the Palestinians and getting out of the Occupied Territories.

There was a key moment – an evening in 1971 when I was sitting with some twenty other youths in the a dingy basement of a house in downtown Tel Aviv, and heard a soldier in uniform who had just come from the Gaza Strip. He was telling of horrors: extrajudicial executions, the victims’ bodies thrown into dry wells; torture; soldiers beating up passers-by on the streets of Gaza "just for the fun of it"… We were shocked, we did not want to believe it, we said "This can’t be true, our army does not do such things!". The soldier said:"Yes, it is true. I have done it myself, and now I can’t sleep at night". Later that night, we went out with some three thousand leaflets, badly printed on an old stencil machine, which contained what the soldier had told. We put them into postboxes around Tel Aviv – "To let the people know what the government was hiding from them" – and looked behind our shoulders to make sure there were no police patrol cars in the streets.

There followed the daily exhausting routine of activism – distributing leaflets on street corners, endless debating with passers-by, going after midnight to write graffiti and paste inflammatory posters on the walls, visits to Palestinian villages, protest vigils of a few dozens outside government offices, sometimes a bit bigger demonstrations which required weeks of intensive preparations and sometimes had disappointing results…


Even if the going was difficult and there were many setbacks, for some decades we felt we were making a headway. PM Golda Meir said that "There is no such thing as Palestinians". Gradually, the idea that the Palestinians are indeed a people and deserve to have their own state became widely accepted in the mainstream of Israeli society, and Golda Meir’s opinion is nowadays held only by the extreme right lunatic fringe.

When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Israel and spoke on the Knesset podium, there was a month of peace euphoria. Peace stopped being an unattainable dream and became a concrete, real possibility, peace rallies grew from hundreds to thousands and to tens of thousands, sometimes to hundreds of thousands. When it became clear that Menachem Begin wanted peace only with the Egyptians and had launched an invasion of Lebanon in order to crush the Palestinians, there was for the first time in Israeli history an active grassroots anti-war movement, with large rallies on the streets and soldiers going to prison for refusing service in Lebanon and eventually the protest of soldiers’ mothers forcing the government to terminate the Lebanon adventure.

The outbreak of the First Intifada convinced many that continued occupation was both immoral and impractical. For decades, the PLO had been considered "a terrorist organization", and the activist and philanthropist Abie Nathan served two six-month prison terms for the "crime" of having met Yasser Arafat and shaken his hand. "We will meet the PLO only on the battlefield" was what Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin said in the earlier part of his career, and he ordered soldiers to "break the bones of rioting Palestinians". Little did Rabin realize that eventually he himself would shake Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, in a blaze of worldwide publicity – or that he would pay for that courageous act with his life and become after his death the archetypal Martyr for Peace, at the focus of vast annual memorial rallies.

At the time when Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with Arafat, we felt that our task was nearly done, that peace between Israel and the Palestinians was at hand and only a few last details needed to be worked out. Even after the assassination of Rabin, peace activists were far from losing heart. The first time that Netanyahu got elected, we in general regarded it as a regrettable accident to be soon corrected. Many of us considered Netanyahu an altogether illegitimate Prime Minister – a bit like many Americans consider Trump nowadays – and the three years of Netanyahu’s first term were stormy, full of intensive demonstrations and protests.

In 1999 Ehud Barak was elected, claiming to be Rabin’s successor and complete Rabin’s unfinished task. The fact that this claim got wide public credibility enabled Barak to give the Israeli peace movement the most grievous blow it ever suffered. In August 2000 Barak, Arafat and Clinton were closeted for intensive negotiations in Camp David. Opinion polls in Israel indicated that, if an agreement was reached and presented to the Israeli voters, it would have gotten at least 70% support and possible as much as 80%. A vast coalition was formed, including the Labor Party and more or less everybody to its left. Gush Shalom (The Peace Bloc), on whose behalf I took part in this coalition’s meetings, was the most radical and critical participant – but we, too, were ready to throw our full backing behind a Barak-Arafat deal. A full-scale campaign was planned in great detail. A very beautiful color poster was prepared, with a large dove and the words "Back the Agreement – Vote YES for Peace". Everybody in the room fell in love with it - If things had gone as we hoped, a hundred thousand copies would have been printed and everybody around the country would have seen them.

What did happen is that Barak came back with the announcement that he had made "generous offers" but the intransigent Arafat had rejected them, and there was "no partner". Shortly afterwards, Barak allowed Sharon to stage his provocation at the Temple Mount, the most sensitive spot in the entire Middle East – resulting in 13 dead Palestinians, the outbreak of the bloody years of the Second Intifada, and the increasing isolation of the peace movement. There had never been a more difficult and uphill task, in all my years of peace activism, as the effort to convince Israelis that Barak’s "generous offers" had not been so generous at all. The general Israeli public just refused to listen, convinced that "Barak offered EVERYTHING to the Palestinians and they reacted with bloody terrorism and suicide bombings".

There was a partial upsurge in 2003, when hundreds of prominent Israelis and Palestinians met in Geneva and signed a draft peace agreement – just needing the signature of the official leaders on the dotted line. But the crafty Sharon, Prime Minister by then, diverted this political energy into a unilateral move in Gaza. Israeli settlers were removed from the Gaza Strip, but direct military occupation was replaced by a suffocating Israeli siege of the Strip – and on the West Bank occupation and settlement expansion continued unabated. There followed several rounds of fighting in and around Gaza, shooting of missiles at Israel and large scale bombings by the Israeli Air Force – altogether cementing the feeling of ordinary Israelis that "peace is impossible" and that "every territory given to the Palestinians will just become a Hamas shooting pad".

And so we come to the present – the incredible fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, which none of us really believed we would see. There was an impressive big rally on the Rabin Square, and numerous smaller protests and events are planned at various locations. But there can be little doubt that Netanyahu – now far more firmly seated than he was twenty years ago – fully intends to continue and perpetuate the occupation.

So why should we continue being active under these inauspicious conditions? For two overlapping reasons. Because it is immoral to occupy and oppress and dispossess another people – and when your country is committing injustice, to be silent is to be an accomplice. That would be true in any country – and doubly true in a country which prides itself as "The State of the Jewish People", given the centuries-long history of Jews suffering injustice and discrimination and persecution.

But also, we must continue to act and strive and protest and hope against hope because of sheer self-interest. Because Israel’s present course is a deadly threat to our future. As things now stand, the survival of Israel depends of three factors: On Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East, on the American domination of the world and the United States being willing and able to give Israel unlimited political, military financial and diplomatic support. An undermining of any of these three would put Israel in very grave trouble. And history shows conclusively that no military superiority, regional or global, lasts forever – nor are there any eternal alliances.

Only a peace agreement, making Israeli a legitimate part of its geographical environment, can truly ensure our long-term survival. And only the Palestinians can sign such a peace.

Ultimately, the reason to continue being a peace activist in Israel is very simple: we just can’t afford to stop it.