Behind the Headlines: on Israel’s Left, Groups Debating Their Role in an Era Nearing Peace

The Women in Black are having a recruitment problem. Since the Palestinian autonomy plan was announced Sept. 13, the organization, which has held weekly protests against the Israeli administration of the territories for the past six years, has considerably shrunk.

Before the accord it had some 5,000 supporters in 31 chapters. These days, there are five chapters, and the group’s weekly demonstrations attract only half as many women as they once did.

The problem is the peace process.

Now that the Israelis and Palestinians are sitting at the negotiation table, many of the country’s peace organizations are examining what role, if any, they should play in the future.

Peace activists note, with a sense of bittersweet irony, that peace could render them obsolete.

Anat Hoffman, a founding member of Women in Black, acknowledged that “peace has struck us a blow. A wonderful blow, but a blow nonetheless.”

As peace approaches, fewer women think “the arena is on the street,” she said.

“For six years we have demanded that the government make a serious attempt at peace, and we feel that it is doing that. There has been a serious attempt to end the occupation and to put Israel on the track to peace,” she said.

Still, Hoffman asserted, “We may be on the road, but we’re not there yet. The Israeli public isn’t 100 percent sure about the accord. People are leery, frightened.

“Continuing the occupation is familiar, and familiarity feels secure. But the occupation is a false sense of security. Peace is frightening because it is unfamiliar,” she said.

Immediately after the peace accord was signed, group members decided to stop demonstrating on a weekly basis. The decision lasted on week. Then the euphoria surrounding the handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat died and reality crept in.

“We decided to reconvene, because we realized our work is far from over,” explained Hoffman, “Attaining peace will be a long process, not only with the Palestinians but with the Arab countries. It’s not time to go home just yet.”

Gavri Bargil, director of Peace Now, agreed.

“The peace process is at a very critical stage right now, and we have a lot of work ahead of us. We have to keep the fires burning,” Bargil said.

Founded in 1978, following Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem, Peace Now is by far the country’s largest and most vocal organization on the left.

According to Bargil, “The role of Peace Now hasn’t really changed – it’s the same role we’ve had for 15 years: to mobilize public opinion in favor of the peace process and to pressure policy-makers to go forward in the direction of peace.”

These days, there is an optimism in the Peace Now camp. Now members are joining the ranks, and old-timers feel vindicated after years of struggle against previous Israeli right-wing tenets.

“The days of the intifada weren’t easy for us,” said Bargil, who recalled the hawkish government of Yitzhak Shamir and the growth of the political Right, “but we never gave up attempts to bring Israel to the peace process.

“Our struggles during the intifada did a lot to prepare the public for the process,” he said.

Despite advances at the negotiating table – or perhaps because of it – Peace Now has stepped up its activities in recent months, organizing mass demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

“Now is the time for us to support (the government) on the street, so that (it) won’t have any second thoughts and move backward,” Bargil said.

“Still,” he conceded with a laugh, “I hope we’ll be the first organization to close, the day the conflict ends.”

Ad Kan (an expression meaning “this far and no further”) is an organization established by about 30 professors Tel Aviv University at the start of the intifada. It has also scaled down its activities.

Members used to meet twice a month for a lecture or demonstration. Now, the group’s members are questioning whether Ad Kan should continue to exist.

“We are very much in a state of flux,” said Israel Gershoni, who helped found the organization six years ago.

“We met a couple of weeks ago to discuss the group’s future, and some members thought we should disband. They said, `We don’t need Ad Kan anymore, because the government is doing our job.

“The rest agreed that we will have to rethink our agenda if peace advances,” he said.

Gershoni speculated that “if the peace process is a great success, if the Israel withdrawal proceeds and autonomy is implemented, I don’t see a future for Ad Kan.

“If that happens, the activists will focus their work into other channels. But if things get more difficult in the coming months – for example, if there is a rise in terrorism – then we will certainly continue,” Gershoni said.

In the meantime, Ad Kan has scheduled a lecture by a Palestinian professor from Bir Zeit University.

“Whatever happens, we have to keep the dialogue going,” Gershoni said.

Dialogue is the raison d’etre of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement Between Peoples. Established in the spring of 1988, the group sponsors dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Palestinians and visitors from abroad.

Some 80 Palestinians and Israelis (about an equal number of each) attend bimonthly sessions at the center, in the West Bank village of Beit Sahur.

According to Ghassan Andoni, who heads the organization’s board of directors, “Our group is not severely affected by the political phenomenon that come and go in the region.

“Our main problem has been one of access: closure of the territories ad the need for travel permits. The Palestinians cannot always get to Israeli areas. We have been left with the Israelis who dare to come to Beit Sahur,” Andoni said.

Asked whether the center has been affected by recent peace developments, Andoni replied, “The peace process seems to be unpopular among the Palestinians. The level of differences among individual Palestinians (within the group) is clearly higher than it was three months ago.

“It’s harder now, but not impossible. Our group survived the (Persian) Gulf War and the deportations because our members have no political attachments or commitments.

“Until now, everyone has been invited to come and visit, regardless of his position, to enhance the level of understanding,” he said. “That will not change in the future.”

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