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Israelis Greet Unofficial Peace Plans with Some New Debate and Old Fatigue

December 8, 2003
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The regulars who take their morning coffee at the sun-bleached Good Day Cafe aptly have nicknamed the spot “Moshe’s Parliament.”

Sitting on red plastic chairs and leaning over flowered tablecloths over the weekend, retirees dissected and debated the various new Middle East peace proposals.

Yonatan Assaf, an 81-year-old retired employee of the electric company, said he has little faith in the government or its capacity for changing its policies.

His friend Eli, a 76-year-old retired tour guide, said the government should be the sole party making peace.

“Whoever wants to make peace with the Arabs needs to be in the government,” said Eli, who asked not to be identified by his last name.

Their discussion over the weekend mirrored that of Israel’s government, as they sat around sipping cappuccinos and debating the unofficial “Geneva accord” peace plan, which has sparked national debate in Israel over how the country can move pass its impasse with the Palestinians.

The Geneva accord, along with a few others being debated here, have tapped into a national malaise resulting from three years of intifada, striking a chord with those tired of the status-quo of frequent terrorism and severe economic hardship.

Even within the government, calls are increasing for action on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

Last Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was quoted in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot as saying that in the absence of a deal with the Palestinians, Israel should plan a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. He said Israel risked losing its demographic edge as a Jewish state if it maintained control over all of those territories and the Palestinian populations within them.

A longtime stalwart of the Likud Party, Olmert swiftly was denounced by many on the Israeli right, and posters depicting him standing beside Hitler appeared in Jerusalem over the weekend.

For all the debate it has inspired, the Geneva proposal is opposed by most Israelis.

A poll published last Friday in Israel’s daily Ma’ariv found that 29 percent of Israelis support the Geneva accord; 45 percent oppose it.

The accord, proposed by Israeli opposition figures with no government authority to negotiate on Israel’s behalf, would give, in exchange for peace and quiet, the Palestinians a state in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, divide Jerusalem and give the Palestinians control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The accord is ambiguous on the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” to Israel for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

Ettie Masika, a hair stylist working in her tiny, butterscotch-yellow hair salon announced that she threw out the accord, which was mailed to every Israeli home in a broad direct-marketing campaign, as soon as she received it.

“Many people just threw it in the trash,” Masika said. “It does not speak to me. It’s so hard to hear about things that will not happen. Every day we hear about peace, peace, but nothing comes of it.”

Heska Boneh, who sat waiting to have color treatment rinsed from her hair, disagreed. She said she read the document closely and has been discussing it with family and friends.

“I hope it leads us somewhere good,” Boneh said. “The world needs to see that we don’t want war and terrorism. We really are prepared for concessions. We want peace.”

Among the proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace is a grass-roots statement of principles called the Peoples’ Voice, which is aimed at influencing leaders on both sides through a nationwide petition campaign. The one-page petition of principles for reconciliation, drawn up by former Israeli security official Ami Ayalon and Palestinian intellectual Sari Nusseibeh, includes a two-state solution, permanent borders based on Israel’s pre-1967 border and a shared Jerusalem as capital of Israel and a Palestinian state.

So far, the petition has garnered 130,000 Israeli signatures and 70,000 Palestinian ones, with 1,000 additional Israelis a day signing it, according to the project’s spokesperson, Abigail Levy.

“I think in the past three years Israeli society has gone through a huge trauma and in a certain way we are coming to a certain awakening,” Levy said. “The way to move forward is not through violence; we need to go back to the table” of negotiation, she said.

Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index, which has polled Israelis monthly on peace-related matters since the Oslo Accords were launched in 1993, found in its latest survey that 75 percent of Israelis favor returning to the negotiating table and trust Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government to decide what concessions should be made in negotiations.

“People want to see a different situation but think that the government is functioning well within the limitations of the situation,” said Tamar Hermann, director of the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research, which conducts the surveys.

Nevertheless, Hermann said, the peace initiatives being proposed by non-governmental figures have managed to “breathe new life into the discussion and put on the table questions that have not been dealt with lately.”

Voters are not changing their minds, she said, but are expressing a willingness to accede to concessions if they are agreed to by Israel’s conservative government.

Ofir Shelah, a commentator for the Ma’ariv newspaper, said the mood of Israelis can be quite fickle. While there may be a growing wave of support now for concessions, a massive terrorist attack could swing public opinion swiftly the other way, he said.

But the national debate on concessions should not be dismissed out of hand, Shelah said.

“People are starting to ask the question of where is all this leading us and how might it end. The questions have always been present, but until now, the anger, desire for revenge and fear took over everything else,” Shelah said.

At the Wooden Horse Cafe on Tel Aviv’s trendy Sheinkin Street, young people laugh and sip frothy cups of cappuccino as a guard with an attack dog stands nearby.

The street is known more for setting fashion trends than as a locus of political discussion, but among its shopkeepers selling designer soap, chunky-heeled shoes and day-glow sweatpants are enthusiastic voices celebrating the return of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Liron, who works at a candle and soap boutique on Sheinkin, said, “It’s good that something is moving now, otherwise we will have more of the same — and what is happening today, it’s just terrible.”

“It’s starting a process, so people can start caring again,” she said.

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