Grass-roots search for peace in Israel. Israeli Jew, Palestinian seek answers in strength of people, not arms

Centuries of animosity in the Middle East have driven the Jewish and Palestinian peoples apart. Decades of war in Israel have drawn one Jew, Ora Namir, and one Palestinian, Abdel Darousha, together. With a shared goal of ``raising the consciousness of the American Jewish community to recognize the urgent need for peace,'' they began a trip this week that will take them to five cities in the United States: Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Chapel Hill, N.C. Traveling together, speaking to Jewish communities and student- and peace-activist groups, the pair hopes to demonstrate -- here and in Israel -- ``that Jews and Arabs can cooperate in Israel's search for a more secure nation,'' says Mr . Darousha.

``American Jews want to be proud of Israel . . . and they want Israel to be strong. But what kind of strength? Physical? Human?'' asks Mrs. Namir. Both Mrs. Namir and Mr. Darousha agree that American Jews need to know that morale in Israel, particularly among the country's youth, is at an all-time low. The toll of ``one long war'' is stripping Israel of the democratic and Judaic principles upon which it was founded: human rights, equal rights, and respect for minorities, adds Mrs. Namir.

As representatives of Peace Now, Darousha and Mrs. Namir, both members of the Knesset (Israel's parliament), are in the US to encourage American Jews to support all efforts working toward peace in the Middle East. Their trip is being sponsored by Friends of Peace Now, the US affiliate of Peace Now, with 17 chapters throughout the country.

Although Peace Now has no formal membership roll, it is recognized as the largest peace movement in Israel today. Mrs. Namir says it often draws crowds of more than 100,000 for its rallies. Peace Now is an ad hoc coalition formed in 1978 to press then Prime Minister Menachem Begin to move ahead with the Camp David peace process. Although the group was instrumental in organizing public opinion against the occupation of Lebanon, its influence has waned since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon.

According to Darousha and Namir, the group's goals today are to ``influence the Israeli government and public opinion to work toward peaceful coexistence with the Arabs.'' Its programs, outlined in its promotional literature, are designed to teach Israelis, especially Jewish and Arab youth, ``the moral dangers of occupation and unnecessary wars'' and to ``break stereotypes'' about Arabs.

Any hopes Namir and Darousha may have had about leaving some of the ugly opposition to their movement behind in Israel were shattered by demonstrators and local police that met them at the door to the Jewish community center in Newton, Mass.

An audience of several hundred people warmly welcomed them. But it was clear that even in the US Jews are divided over where the borders of Israel should lie. Some Jews, in Israel and the US, are critical of Peace Now's stand on the border issue: a complete withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, except for Jerusalem. Jews are also divided over how to handle Jewish-Arab relations within Israel. They feel the group is advocating a sell out to the Arabs. As one person in the audience put it, ``Why m ust the Jews always give up so much and the Arabs nothing?''

The Arabs, many Jews say, have never accepted Israel's claim to the strip of land between the Jordan River and the Mediteranean Sea and the conflict will not end even if Israel withdraws, lock, stock, and barrel, from the disputed territories. ``What was so magical about the pre-1967 borders?'' yelled one attendee. ``What will we accomplish by giving back Judea and Samaria . . . will it appease the Arabs?'' Furthermore, withdrawal from these areas will not answer the question: Who does Jerusalem -- prec ious to Jews, Muslims, and Christians -- belong to?

According to one spokesman, demonstrators from the ``Kach'' movement attended the meeting to ``expose Mr. Darousha who, as an Arab, cannot be loyal to Israel.'' They were removed by local police after they interrupted a lively but otherwise peaceful event. ``Kach,'' meaning thus, is usually accompanied by a clenched fist waved threateningly at an opponent. The party was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, a member of the Knesset who has been openly contemptuous of democracy and advocates removing all Arabs fr om Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Many Israelis, according to Mr. Darousha and Mrs. Namir, feel Kahane has ``created his own brand of Nazism.''

Mr. Kahane's stance is not acceptable to most Israelis, says Namir. She was quick to point out, however, that recent events in the Middle East have created a cultivated field in which movements such as Kahane's will sow seed. These events, combined with a decade of ``educational nationalism,'' make the urge to support movements such as Kahane's irresistible to some Israeli youth, she says.

Mrs. Namir stated candidly that she had no illusions that ``Jews and Arabs would learn to love, truly love one another.'' But, reiterating a statement made earlier by Darousha, she said, ``they must learn to live side by side.''

A member of the Knesset for 12 years, Mrs. Namir chairs the Labor and Social Affairs Committee and is the leader of the Israeli Labor Party's dovish lobby. Both she and Mr. Darousha, one of only five Arab members of the Knesset, have at times openly defied their government by meeting, or attempting to meet, with persons closely associated with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Israeli law forbids any contact with the PLO which may harm Israeli security.

Namir says that ``Israel with narrow borders and peace is more secure than Israel with broad borders and war.'' Emphasizing her point, she says that annexation of the West Bank and Gaza would bring 2 million more Arabs into the Jewish state, upsetting the balance of the population. ``If these people were not given full citizenship, Israel would not be respecting Judaism.'' Thus, ``Israel will not be Israel, it will be like any other state,'' she says.

This scenario would, according to Namir, be more dangerous than a small Israel, with 600,000 Arab citizens, surrounded on all sides but one by Arab nations.

``All the money we can receive, all the ammunition will not compete with Arab ammunition. Israel will overcome the Arabs around us by superb values, by the high quality of the people of Israel,'' says Namir.

When pushed to qualify what she means by ``overcome,'' she explains that Israel must search out what will make it strong enough to remain a tiny country in the middle of a turbulent area. She says she believes her country will find this strength in its people, both Jewish and Arab.

She believes, however, that, ``Time is running out, for the Palestinians and for Israel.''

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