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Behind the Headlines Whither the Peace Now Movement?

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– The Peace Now movement, which came into being during 1978 with the specific purpose of pressuring the Begin government to make concessions to Egypt during the peace negotiations, seems today in a state of confusion as to its future.

The movement, which succeeded in turning out more than 100,000 people at its mass demonstration in Tel Aviv on the eve of the Camp David conference–a massive figure in Israeli terms–failed to convene more than 1000 or so several weeks ago when it organized a “protest march” against what it termed the government’s “obstinate positions” in the autonomy talks.

This limited response seemed to reflect what many observers feel is Peace Now’s loss of popularity and support among wide circles of the Israeli public. Something in the public image of the movement has been tarnished: the Peace Now activists are now seen as semi-professional politicians rather than as enthusiastic idealists–as they were considered two years ago.

In a number of interviews, the Peace Now leaders recently exposed something of the movement’s confusion. They admitted that the movement is searching for a path, trying to crystallize a consensus among its leaders with regard to its future. Part of the leading group wants to convert the movement into a political party, others strongly object to this idea.

Some observers feel that Peace Now in fact accomplished its task two years ago–but its young leaders refuse to realize that their role in Israeli public life has ended.

BACKGROUND OF PEACE NOW MOVEMENT

Peace Now was established as a direct result of a letter sent by 320 army reserve officers to Premier Menachem Begin in March 1978. On the same day Ezer Weizman, then Minister of Defense, threatened to resign if Begin did not stop a would-be settlement operation at one of the “heart-of-Samaria” sites.

The letter, signed by outstanding and unquestionably patriotic army officers–some of them had won military decorations–warned the Premier that if he continued to prefer the idea of “Greater Israel” achieving peace with Egypt, these officers might no longer be able to identify with the country’s policy.

Though far-reaching (in some peoples eyes too far-reaching), this was an obviously honest and sincere appeal stemming from an authentic feeling of frustration that the chance of peace with Egypt might be missed due to the government’s policy. The genuineness and the honesty of the officers’ letter were the key to their tremendous political success. Four months after the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, the officers’ letter seemed to reflect the basic feelings of most Israelis.

The consequence was that the 320 reserve officers evolved into a political grass roots group, which rapidly accumulated public power and financial resources.

HAD WIDE SPREAD SUPPORT

After establishing the Peace Now movement, the officers gained the support of several well-known Israeli politicians, such as Abba Eban, Haim Barlev, and the late Yigal Allon, and the sympathy of 350 leading intellectuals, among them Professors Arye Evoretzky, Gershom Shalom, Dan Patenkin, and Jacob Talmon who died June 17, 1979 at the age of 64. The movement was supported, too, by many Jewish intellectuals and some communal leaders, in the U.S. and Europe.

The government could not ignore either the public power of the Peace Now movement nor their basic political argument–that Israel must do everything, without endangering its national security, to bring to a successful conclusion the peace negotiations with Egypt.

By publishing pamphlets and press releases, by commenting on each of the government’s arguments, by organizing expressions of public protest against the official policy, the Peace Now movement became a major political factor that the government was compelled to take into consideration.

The Camp David summit took place against the backdrop of the huge Peace Now demonstration in Tel Aviv. Begin’s concessions at Camp David were to some extent a direct result of the public atmosphere created in Israel by the 100,000 demonstrators.

INFLUENCE BEGINS TO WANE

Ever since then, the influence of Peace Now began to wane. The movement’s leaders have staged several subsequent demonstrations against various aspects of the government’s policy but were never able to repeat their previous success.

Gradually, the public attitude towards them shifted. They began to be seen as nuisances rather than as public personalities whose views deserved attention. The main reason is the widespread feeling that the Peace Now leaders themselves do not represent a clear and agreed position on the key issues.

Peace Now has never stated officially and explicitly what its concept is regarding the future of the West Bank and the Palestinian people. Does the movement support the idea of a separate Palestinian state, or does it favor the Labor Party doctrine of territorial compromise with Jordan?

LACK OF CLARITY

Instead of representing clear and crystallized positions, the Peace Now leaders choose some vague terms to define their ideological approach towards the future of Judaea and Samaria and the status of the Palestinians.

This vague terminology is not accidental. It stems from the fact that the leaders of the movement have differences of opinions among themselves concerning these complicated issues.

The result of this ambiguity and confusion is a weak and unconvincing movement. The Peace Now apparatus still reacts from time to time to various political events. Its leaders publicly air their internal differences, and they are no longer able to woo significant public support for their sporadic acts of protest. Too often the Peace Now young leaders remind one of actors who missed their cue to leave the stage.

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