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

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

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.

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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.''

Dr. Andoni, Bardin's Palestinian counterpart, agrees. ``The major benefit for us was a greater understanding of the other side,'' he says. ``And we gained some friends we can trust. But I'm not sure that we gained a lot on the national level.''

Now that official peace talks are under way, the dialogue is in crisis, and although both sides agree that the meetings should continue, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are quite sure how. With the Israeli government talking peace ``we don't have a common enemy to unite us anymore,'' Andoni laments.

The broader, more overtly political efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis together have a clearer future, participants say.

``Peace Now,'' for example, ``is both a movement and a mood,'' says Avishai Margalit, a leading Peace Now activist, ``and the mood in the street will be as important for ultimate decisions as any vote in the Knesset. The question now is how and when to be active in the street,'' he adds.

Womens' groups, which have always played a prominent role in the peace camp, are also organizing to shape the coming peace.

``This peace has to be about new types of relations between peoples, not officials,'' Ms. Chazan argues. ``Our aim is to mold the peace as interaction between equals.''

Chazan's brainchild, the ``Jerusalem Link,'' launched itself last weekend with a leadership training seminar for Israeli and Palestinian women. Comprising two autonomous but related womens' centers, one for Jewish women in West Jerusalem and one for Palestinians on the East side of the city, the project exemplifies her vision of the future.

Explosion of think tanks

At the policy making level, there has been an explosion of Israeli-Palestinian think tanks in recent months, as scholars and activists race to ride what Demant calls ``the wave of the future.''

One such institution, the Jerusalem-based Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI), has been working since 1990, bringing Israeli and Palestinian professionals and academics together quietly to discuss practical problems such as security, water resources, and the future of Jerusalem.

``The concepts the negotiators in Taba are dealing with are the ones that came out of the meetings we had,'' says IPCRI co-director Gershon Baskin.

With probably another three years' negotiations ahead before an agreement on the final status of the occupied territories, the think tanks have a lot of legwork to do, working over the issues for negotiation before the official negotiators tackle them.

IPCRI is also embarking on a complex project, run by Demant, to see how Palestinians and Israelis ``can use their past traumas to build a common future,'' as he puts it, ``and deal with their clashing collective identities.''

One of his most challenging tasks, Demant says, will be to produce a single history textbook that both Palestinian and Israeli schoolchildren can use, reconciling their two very different views of the same events.

``Peace with the Palestinians is not just a question of delineating a border,'' Dr. Margalit points out. ``It will be a complicated peace with people interrelating in a complicated way. People will have to deal with each other, and we will have to keep relations between communities, not just governments, going in a way that is conducive to peace.''

Official negotiators may have taken over technical talks, agrees Demant, ``but peace won't really be made until the peoples themselves make peace; that's a much more long range problem.''

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