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Longtime Mideast Peace Activists Keep the Faith Despite Many Setbacks

Robert Lifton is not interested in debating whether the cup of peace is half full or half empty.

“At long last there is a glass which is slowly filling up, and the challenge is to fill it as quickly as possible,” said Lifton, chair of the international board of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council of Foreign Relations.

During his long tenure as president of the American Jewish Congress, Lifton was a loud critic of former right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and an outspoken proponent of negotiating with the Palestinians.

Then, 15 months ago, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat signed their peace agreement, it seemed as if Lifton and all the other longtime American Jewish peace activists had reached their day in the sun on the White House lawn.

Now, the picture appears markedly less bright. More than 100 Israelis have died in terrorist attacks since the signing. A wave of suicide-terrorist attacks have claimed dozens of lives, many of them in the most densely populated parts of Israel. The PLO has failed to fulfill its pledge to amend its covenant, which calls for Israel’s destruction. Aid promised to the Palestinians has only begun to trickles into the autonomous Gaza Strip. Talks on advancing the process to the next stage, including elections in the West Bank originally scheduled for last July, seem to be going nowhere.

“If you look back at September of ’93 and ask, `are you better off now than then,’ the answer is no,” argued Herbert Zweibon, chairman of Americans For a Safe Israel and a longtime opponent of the peace process.

Many middle-of-the-road Israelis and American Jews, who were at first enthusiastic about the prospects for peace, have despaired light of recent events.

But the staunchest advocates of peace on the left do not admit defeat, or even discouragement.

Some say that ups and downs were inevitable.

And other say that Israel should be making even more concessions to the Palestinians to advance the process.

Lifton’s responds to “I-told-you-so’s” from critics of the accord with an “I- told-you-so” of his own.

“Everyone forgets what Rabin himself kept telling everybody at the beginning: This is going to be a long and arduous process with setbacks, and it’s going to take a stick-to-itness and a real commitment,” said Lifton.

“We were neither as euphoric then nor as despairing now as those who are more casual observers of the Palestinian scene,” said Thomas Smerling. Smerling is executive director of Project Nishma, a group formed to promote the dovish security policies of t he Labor party in the American Jewish community.

Smerling, an activist in promotion Israeli-Arab for 15 years, the last 10 of the them professionally, takes the long view.

“In the late 1980s, the situation was so bleak that people wondered why we were wasting our time. But there are simply some problems, on matter how daunting, from which one cannot walk away,” he said.

He considers himself lucky to be living in “an era of breakthroughs,” such as the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan and the general Arab warming to Israel seen in such events as Rabin’s recent visit to Oman.

Though confident that “the forces of moderation will prevail,” Smerling worries about the near future.

If the peace process stalls, he said, “terrible things can occur. There could be a war fought by missiles; there could be terrible atrocities. The question is, how many more meaningless deaths will occur before an accommodation is reached?”

The present danger, said Smerling, is “the failure to achieve tangible improvements for the Palestinian masses in Gaza. Until that is achieved, the Palestinian Authority will be increasing Jeopardy.”

Lifton readily acknowledged the many setbacks and “consequences people don’t like” in the present process.

“But you have to look at the alternative. You can’t look at it in a vacuum,” he said. “It’s a delusion to think that if the peace process fails, the terror will stop. There will be more people with more reason to resort to terror, because their hopes will be totally dashed,” said Lifton.

Gary Rubin, executive director of Americans for Peace Now, pus more of the onus on Israel.

Unlike Smerling and Lifton, who echo the positions of Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, APN takes its cues from the left wing of Israel’s government.

Rubin argues that the time has come for Israel to start removing settlers from Gaza and the West Bank.

“Areas under Palestinian rule should really be under Palestinian rule,” said Rubin. “It will be impossible to build confidence when you have settler cars driving through small Palestinian villages.”

Rubin similarly believes that is confidence-building measures, not condemnations, that will bring the Palestinians to fulfill their side of the accords.

“The Palestinian covenant does have to be changed,” said Rubin, referring to the PLO charter calling for the destruction of Israel. Arafat promised in September 1993 to a mend the document. He has until now failed to muster the quorum of PLO leadership needed to make the changes.

“But if we’re really interested in changing the covenant, what needs to happen is economic aid and allowing elections to enable an elected Palestinian authority to amend the covenant,” said Rubin.

Michael Lerner, editor of the left-wing Tikkun magazine, agrees that Arafat and the PLO have not been sufficiently fortified.

He said that those pointing to Gaza’s current problems as proof that Arafat is not a credible negotiating partner have it wrong.

Israel has give Gaza only “the most minimal degree of self-rule,” said Lerner.

Talk about Israel’s “generosity” in its agreement with the Palestinians it “self-delusion,” Lerner added.

“This isn’t what the Palestinian movement has been fighting for a Palestinian state, a vote at the United nations. National pride: that’s the issue,” said Lerner.

Israel’s show movement means Palestinians don’t believe the peace process will deliver this pride,” he said.

“A million Palestinians who still live under military rule have continued to feel that there is on end in sight. They don’t feel they have gained very much so far in the this process,” said Lerner.

Yet despite being, by his admission, “very critical” of Israel’s slow pace, Lerner has not editorialized on the subject in the past half-year.

In part, he said, that reflects the rapid pace of developments and his magazine’s semi-monthly publishing schedule.

But it also reflects a dilemma he likens to that of liberals during the first two years of the Clinton presidency.

“We wanted him to succeed, but thought he was taking self-destructive steps. The question was whether to make our criticisms publicly or privately, since we had good access.

“The same this is happening with Israel. We don’t want (Likud leader Benjamin) Netanyahu to replace Rabin. We want Rabin to succeed, but we believe his policies are self-undermining.”

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