For Israel's peace flank, dwindling ranks

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wears on, more members of Israel's left lean right.

It's Saturday night in front of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's home in Jerusalem, and a crowd is gathering.

Bundled in sweaters against the unseasonable cold, and carrying torches, the crowd of several hundred begins its chants: "Stop the bloodshed," and "We will not die for the settlements." "We are still here," they insist, over and over. A few passing drivers honk in support. More jeer. An hour later, the crowd breaks up and goes home.

In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Israeli's would show up for peace rallies to protest the war in Lebanon.

Today, amid hard-hitting incursions into the West Bank that have caused untold destruction and dozens of civilian deaths, assembling 20,000 demonstrators is considered a great success. Many who formerly called for peace are rethinking their old positions.

"At this point in time, I regard these demonstrations as support of Palestinian terrorism," says Benni Morris, who used to come to these Peace Now demonstrations regularly.

An internationally known Israeli revisionist historian, Professor Morris has written books that delve into the Zionist narrative of Israel's creation, and undermine it by arguing that great wrong was done to the Palestinians in the process. This made him an icon of the left. As a commander in the army, in 1988 he became one of the first reserve soldiers to refuse an order to serve in the occupied territories – and went to jail for his convictions.

Today, Morris is gravely disappointed in the Palestinians and their leadership. And he is not alone.

In the 19 months since the failure of the peace talks at Camp David, and the subsequent start of the second intifada and spate of suicide bombings, the number of Israelis identifying with the peace movement has been dwindling.

"[Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat rejected our peace offers, turned to the option of terrorist war, and gave voice to destroying Israel," says Morris. "Any demonstration here signals to him that no matter what he does, he has allies in Israel. It encourages him to continue his attacks."

In September 2001, 90 percent of the Palestinian population and all the main towns and villages of the West Bank and Gaza were under autonomous Palestinian rule. And while the Camp David accord was rejected by Mr. Arafat, negotiations continued.

And then the intifada began. The bitter uprising that has claimed the lives of 470 Israelis and an estimated 1,542 Palestinians has nurtured seeds of intense hatred between the peoples.

"The Israeli left was paralyzed by the narrative of Camp David," explains Joel Peters, a political science professor at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheba. "The narrative was: We offered them everything, and they rejected it."

But disappointment faded as the months went on, just as frustration with the right-wing policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon grew. "You can't stay with 'it's their fault' forever," says Professor Peters. "Sharon was heading nowhere, and there was a recognition that the time had come to move forward."

But just as the peace movement's momentum seemed to be reviving, the country was hit by long series of suicide bombings that the Palestinian leadership was reluctant to condemn. . "There was a sense that this was everyone's war, and there was near total support for 'you need to do something,' " says Peters. "People might not be ready to die for the settlers, but they are ready to fight for the right of their children to take a bus to school, for their right to sit in a cafe."

Janet Aviad, a founder of Peace Now (Israel's largest peace movement) agrees, adding that the few who still wanted to protest stayed home because they were afraid of congregating. "What better target for the extremist bombers than the peace camp?" she asks.

The leftist grass roots once expressed hopes for a new Middle East, of coexistence. Today it talks about walls. "The atmosphere is very different as a result of the last 19 months," admits Ms. Aviad. "There has been a turning inward. We say: 'Let's have separation. Let them have a state but let us have ours. Let's even put up a fence and lock it. Let each society build itself. Let us sober up.' " This is not, she adds, what they worked all these years for. "But we are rational, and we needed to change, and eventually trust can be built up again."

One ray of light in this tunnel for members of the peace movement, ironically, is that although fewer Israelis identity themselves as part of the left, polls show that when it comes to a Palestinian state, more Israelis identity with the left's traditional goals.

A poll done by the Israeli daily Maariv last week found that while 75 percent of Israelis were in favor of Sharon's incursions into the West Bank, 50 percent were for dismantling the settlements, 52 percent were in favor of the Saudi peace plan, and 57 percent were for a Palestinian state.

The popular explanation given for this phenomenon is that while the majority of Israelis want little to do with the Palestinians, they all want security – and are willing to try anything that might give them that.

Kitty-corner from the Peace Now demonstration is what remains of the Moment Cafe. A popular yuppie hang-out, it was blown up by a suicide bomber on a Saturday night last month. Eleven youngsters were killed, including some who had just strolled over for a cappuccino after participating in the peace demonstration. Memorial candles and wilted flowers adorn what once was a patio. A lone bumper sticker is pasted on a nearby collapsed wall. "It's not about the settlements," reads the sticker. "It's about Moment. It's about you and me."

At a bus stop directly next to the cafe, an old man is waiting with his poodle. He nods at the demonstration, glances at the wrecked cafe, and mumbles: "What's the point?"

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