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Peace Activists Redefine Their Role

Secret peace initiatives and years of informal dialogue laid the groundwork for current official Israel-PLO talks

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 1994


WHEN peace is at hand, what does a ``peacenik'' do?

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For the many Israelis and Palestinians whose personal contacts prefigured the current formal negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the question represents a real dilemma. What is their role, now that talks on an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza are under way?

There is little time for them to rest on their laurels, although many of those involved in years of unofficial overtures across the Israeli-Palestinian divide claim credit for the historic accord their leaders signed last September in Washington.

Their efforts took many forms. Some activists jogged together through Bethlehem in T-shirts emblazoned with the Israeli and Palestinian national colors.

Others arranged secret meetings abroad between PLO security officials and former Israeli generals.

And without those private initiatives, insists Naomi Chazan, a Knesset (parliament) member from the left-wing Meretz faction, and a veteran peace campaigner, there would have been no deal in Oslo.

``To reach the point where Israel would talk to the PLO, there had to be 10 years of informal dialogue and meetings that expanded from the fringes of each society to the mainstream,'' she argues.

Revision of themes

But now that Israel is talking to the PLO ``we need a serious revision of our themes,'' says Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian from the West Bank town of Beit Sahur who helped found a small ``dialogue group'' of Israelis and Palestinians six years ago.

Though spurned or ignored by the majority of their peoples, those individuals on both sides of the conflict who were bold enough to go and meet the enemy did have an impact, says Peter Demant, an Israeli scholar who has studied the history of informal Israeli-Palestinian links.

``One should not exaggerate it,'' he cautions. ``Dialogues in themselves cannot bring peace. But they laid the groundwork in terms of public opinion on both sides.''

At the same time, Dr. Demant points out, unofficial contacts also laid the groundwork for official negotiators later. As long ago as 1976, left-wing Israeli activists and middle-ranking PLO officials agreed on the broad principles that served as the foundations for the ``Declaration of Principles'' signed in September.

Nor was it any coincidence, he says, that the Declaration of Principles emerged from private talks between two Israeli peaceniks and some PLO officials last year.

Those conversations, which later turned into official and secret negotiations, were merely the last in a long series of such contacts.

It is harder to say whether the person-to-person dialogues between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians had the same sort of impact.

Those discussions began in 1988, when a computer programmer at Hebrew University, Hillel Bardin, went to visit the family of a Palestinian his Army unit had arrested while he was doing his annual reservist's duty in Jericho.

That meeting blossomed into a regular series of biweekly get-togethers in Beit Sahur that have continued ever since.

But only 100 or so people from either side ever joined in the talks, although ``for the people involved it made a tremendous difference,'' Mr. Bardin says. He acknowledges, however, that ``our effectiveness in political terms is extremely limited.''