In a hostile desert, a seed of hope

On Wednesday, 51 Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals and leaders issued a call for peace.

It's only a few dozen people.

But after 10 months of near-daily suicide bombings, assasinations, attacks, and bitter accusations, it may represent a tiny seed of hope.

On Wednesday, 27 Israeli politicians, including three former cabinet ministers, and 24 Palestinians, many of them officials in the Palestinian Authority, issued the first joint call for a halt to violence and the resumption of peace negotiations.

"The Israeli peace movement has been badly injured by the Palestinian conduct, but even with the wounds, we have to work together to renew the dialogue between the nations," says Israeli author Amos Oz, a veteran opponent of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip who believes Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was responsible for the start of the bloodletting.

There is very little political or public support left in Israel for the peace movement. Even among moderates on both sides, who once cooperated openly, the Palestinian uprising and Israel's harsh response have created a chasm of mistrust. But it's significant that Oz and others are now seeking a fresh start with their former peace partners.

Beleaguered activists of the Israeli left believe the effort can help spark a revival of their dwindling peace camp, but analysts say that is unlikely now, due to continued violence and the far-reaching political fallout from the collapse of the Oslo peace process.

Still, the immediate hope is that the document will provide a basis for future cooperation, with moderates on each side being able to boost one another, and perhaps resume joint appearances and activities.

"In spite of everything we still believe in the humanity of the other side, that we have a partner for peace and that a negotiated solution to the conflict between our peoples is possible," the declaration said.

It called for a two-state solution, with the Palestinian state to emerge in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and each country to have a capital in Jerusalem.

It urged adhering to the recommendations of the international commission headed by former US Sen. George Mitchell, which include the cessation of violence, a total freeze on Jewish settlement activity, the implementation of outstanding agreements, and a return to negotiations.

The driving forces behind the document are former Israeli justice minister and peace negotiator Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the PA minister of information.

Abed-Rabbo says the signatories who are PA officials participated as individuals, but also stresses that the document is consistent with PA positions.

Oz's road back to cooperation came only after much disillusionment and anger, widely shared on the Israeli left, in the face of the spurning of what were perceived as "generous" peace proposals made by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and a sense that the Palestinians launched violence aimed at improving the terms.

Many doves believe that in exchange for their years of advocacy of Palestinian self-determination and Israeli concessions to skeptical and hostile Israeli audiences, they received "a slap in the face," in the words of A.B. Yehoshua, an Israeli novelist who has also now decided to renew his contacts with the Palestinians.

Oz makes clear that his resuming of contacts emanates from a feeling of necessity, not desire.

Taking issue with the prevalent Israeli view that there is no Palestinian partner for peace negotiations, he says: "They will always be a partner, because of the simple fact that we and the Palestinians live in a two-family unit."

But the Palestinians who signed Wednesday's document are trying to overcome their own deep grievances.

In their eyes, Oz and Yehoshua betrayed their dovish principles - and Palestinian partners - by espousing the official Israeli line that Barak's offers were generous, that Palestinians are rejectionists, and that the intifada was a premeditated campaign of violence.

Moreover, they note, many of their friends on the Israeli left fell silent in the face of brutal Israeli actions, such as the causing of avoidable deaths by soldiers, large-scale demolition of houses, and the ongoing economic siege of the occupied territories.

"We used to have a lot of friends on the Israeli side: they used to be very active. But suddenly they took up the slogan that Barak was very generous," said Suleiman Mansour, a Palestinian signatory who is also director of the al-Wasiti Art Center in Jerusalem.

"Amos Oz took a stand that was easy for him to take within Israel. But our situation now does not require easy positions. We need courage and confrontation with the ideas of the people."

Mansour lauds the joint document as "a good start" toward renewed cooperation.

For now, the joint document is unlikely to have a wider impact on the Israeli public, according to Chemi Shalev, political correspondent for the Ma'ariv daily newspaper. Israeli politics is continuing to move right-ward, fueled by anger and frustration over what Israelis consider to be Arafat's insistence on employing violence, he says.

Moreover, Shalev adds, the peace camp in Israel is weakened by the absence of a leader. The situation can change only if the public becomes disgruntled by the use of too much military force or if a diplomatic opportunity emerges, he said.

"The elements aren't in place now, and people aren't paying much attention to this," Shalev says.

"But depending on developments, I wouldn't rule out that people may one day look back on this document and say the revival of the peace camp started here."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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