Daniel Amit is a physicist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a founding member of the Committee Against the War in Lebanon and its predecessors, the Committee in Solidarity with Birzeit University and the Committee Against Settlement in Hebron. During the 1982-1983 academic year, he is Einstein Professor at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He spoke with MERIP editors in New York at the end of January, just before the Kahan Commission issued its final report on the Beirut massacres.
What are the main accomplishments of the Committee Against the War?
The most important thing that happened in the last year or so is that we have shown the feasibility of a joint Israeli-Palestinian non-violent struggle against the occupation. That phase culminated with the demonstration of 100,000 on July 3. In this process we discovered certain things. First of all, non-violent confrontation politics is a tactic that doesn’t isolate us. That was a discovery. Now it’s become one of the central tactics of Peace Now. They took it up in May 1982, when Sharon was going to inaugurate his settlement west of Hebron. The other accomplishment was a beginning of grassroots legitimacy in the Palestinian street. This, in turn, gave Palestinian intellectuals — the more politically active people — a higher level of legitimacy in their own constituency for working with us. I am idealizing, of course. Many problems must still be worked out. They’re not afraid of their constituency, and they’re not afraid of the Israeli authorities. I think what protects them in the face of the Israeli authorities is the platform of the committee. lt has a “two-state” formula which does not leave room for Israelis to complain that they’re acting to destroy the state of Israel. That is an element of greatest importance.
I must say that the impact of the presentations of the Palestinians in the platforms we set up for them inside Israel is stunning. I find political terms not sufficient to describe it. We really have to go to some psychological terminology to see what happens to people when they’re confronted with a Palestinian who quietly and politely tells them that the occupation has to come to an end, that Palestinians want a state of their own, that the PLO is going to run it and that’s it. He says it in a very articulate and nice way to people who are sometimes right of center, not Peace Now people. I think that our joint activities have developed the situation to such a degree that so many people participate at such intense levels.
Is this something that would have happened whether or not the war had happened?
Oh yes. lt started before the war. This is why people were so ready to mobilize when the war started. When a war starts, trumpets blow and people go, but we were ready. In March, Peace Now had a demonstration with 25,000 people against the repression on the West Bank. In May they adopted our tactics and went for a confrontation with Sharon over a new settlement on Independence Day. They were tear-gassed. They felt baptized.
This was building up. There was a big increase with the proclamation of the civilian administration in November 1981, but of course the momentum already existed before that. The first breakthrough was the Hebron story, the story of Fahd Qawasma and the Committee Against Settlement in Hebron, in 1979. The problem was how to mobilize Israeli Jews to defend Hebron against an invasion by Kiryat Arba people. I believed that if Qawasma would do it together with us, then nobody would want to stay out. The most important thing at that stage was that each of these small Israeli opposition groups was having its own demonstration of 25 people. If Palestinians came along, they would all be willing to work together, all except Peace Now. They didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Today, I think even they would come. Everybody since then has been working together, which in itself is a great achievement.
We’re learning the potential of this type of work in all directions. All that has been done so far shows that this is a feasible strategy with a solid perspective as well as a good prospect of winning. For example, the Israeli meeting with Arafat in January in Tunis is a result of that work. Peled, Arnon and Avneri identify themselves as Committee people, even though they had very little to do with it except to express some general kind of support. Our activity gave Arafat the internal legitimacy to invite these people. This shows that the peace potential really is tremendous.
The problem now is to think and reorganize. Nobody has articulated all these lessons. The next thing is to convince the Palestinians, the PLO, that it is a feasible strategy. In the West Bank, the idea has had wide support — from PFLP, DPF and the Communists to much of Fatah. Unfortunately, interactional politics sometimes leads to criticism of Palestinians who work with us. This is something the Palestinians must still work out. I believe that at this stage neither we nor they have any other course.
What are the main components of the Committee Against the War?
The Committee is a very loose coalition of political groups, which are not all happy bedfellows. There are tensions and there are attempts to manipulate. Most of the work is really being done by the people who are unaffiliated, but political groups always demand a certain bounty. Above all, many wonderful, experienced participants believe that everything is contained in traditional political wisdom. People find it hard to believe that the activity is also an act of discovery.
The Communist Party, Rakah, can show the largest number of votes and members. That has nothing to do with the proportion of their contribution to the Committee, neither monetarily nor in terms of actual work. Nor even, I would say, in terms of numbers that show up for activities. But it helps make the Committee a Jewish-Arab committee. There is left-wing Sheli. There’s hardly a Sheli, but it has a left wing, and they are with us. Left-wing Sheli sees itself as an organized group. There’s Shasi — the Israeli socialist left. There are both existing Matzpens, one less dogmatic and somewhat anarchist, the other affiliated with the Fourth International. These groups do not accept the positions of the Committee ideologically. What they have learned — and this is another indication of the vitality of the process — is that it’s where people want to be. We told them: You sign up with the positions of the Committee, and then you convince the people that they should work for something else. You’ll be mixing with people for a change.
You mean on the question of two states versus a secular democratic state?
Some of them support the secular democratic state, some of them support a socialist Middle East confederation. They’re very effective workers. I think it’s very important that they’re in. Their presence, as well as their acceptability, attest to the fact that we are not engaged in another stillborn process of politicking. At the very same time it proves that we have also crossed the hurdle of Zionism — it is no longer a question. They’re hardliners, but once they’ve taken a decision they stick with it. Absolutely principled. Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to have them appear in public for the Committee.
Then there is the Campus movement. Campus is a coalition of left organizations and individuals at Israeli universities which has been active in defending Arab students against attacks by Zionist extremists and in campaigns to support Birzeit and other Palestinian universities under occupation. Again, there’s a lot of overlap. But the Campus movement has proven to be an extremely important component of Israeli politics. If you go to the soldiers’ movement, those that refused to go to the war, and you ask them how this developed, they will often say, “Well, I’ve always been on the periphery of the Campus movement and there were all these Arabs there, and they were just our friends and we had worked together.” There is a lot of low profile activity, and it has very deep effects. They have joined the Committee.
The Israel-Palestine Peace Council, Matti Peled and company, sort of endorsed it. Now it is more wholehearted. At various stages, they would get involved and then pull out. They were very much with us, for example, when the Committee Against the War was the Hebron Committee. They demonstrated with us when we called for a demonstration at the Allenby bridge, when Qawasma and Milham were expelled to the other side. They’re always a little bit hesitant about what to do about the Communists, the Matzpen groups and so on. So they move in and out.
Do they have a constituency?
This is an aristocratic club, with its own dignitaries. Some of this has been useful in projecting personalities, in giving some more status to contacts. That is part of their problem with the Committee. The Committee has been working in extremely informal democratic ways. They just can’t understand it. Especially in Jerusalem, where every two weeks you have a mass meeting. Everybody goes and pastes things on the walls, everybody goes and types, just everybody. Nobody’s the chairperson or anything.
Then there’s this group in Tel Aviv University called Forum, which is very important. This is a faculty equivalent of Campus, and they have been doing very good work. Once you project a little bit of unity, a lot of people come. Many people have moved over, for example, from Peace Now, because in Peace Now people’s consciousness develops all the time and layers of people who need to move one more step peel off. Peace Now doesn’t move in its positions fast enough because of its size and its concerns. These layers of people build up, and people come over and work with us.
That is another element of the proposed and perceived strategy — that the peace movement is now in these two main parts and there’s been a very good functional division of labor. Those people who just get into the first wave of being incensed with what’s happening go with Peace Now. There’s a point when people need to have clearer political positions, a little bit more radical action, and to start living in the new Palestine — of transnational solidarity — and they have a semi-respectable address.
The Committee has good relations with Peace Now, with plenty of mutual respect. The war has convinced Peace Now that we were very valuable — the Committee literally acted out the role of vanguard. This opened up the way to legitimize opposition to the war and also measured how much popular support Peace Now could expect. Many among their leadership would express positions very similar to the Committee in private. They’re very sophisticated types, the folks who run Peace Now. They are very good at gauging their constituency. They’ve been at it for four or five years, and they haven’t made major mistakes, in the sense of losing their constituency. This is something which is quite remarkable.
Some people criticize them for being cautious, but I think that given the way things have developed this is no reason to criticize them. They tell people, in private discussions, “Look, you need something more. There is the Committee.” Two weeks into the war we had a meeting in our house. A member of the [Israel-Palestine Peace] Council was there, and one of the Peace Now leaders. The Council member, for lack of constituency, was attacking the man from Peace Now for not going down to the street. So he answered by saying, “Look, we still have to find out what our people want. If we go to the street and find 5,000 people, that’s carte blanche for Begin. We’re finished. This invasion and Beirut is serious business.” The next line is, “Next week the Committee is having a demonstration. We’ll see what the Committee gets, and then we will know.”
That’s of course exactly the way the process went.
Is there a consensus within the Committee about its present course?
I’m not expressing here the collective analysis. It has yet to emerge. This is very much my own thinking. And we’re having certain fights about it, unfortunately. Some people think that this is the time to transform the Committee into a party. Some people think that the problem is to negotiate better between Rakah and Sheli and this and that. Some think that this process is a means. In my view the strength of the process is in its being an end. This type of analysis that I’m giving here is a modest beginning of my own. I am not sure I even agree with myself.
To the extent that appreciation of the process I’ve been describing here were to become collective, and to the extent that it would ever project into the Palestinian community and the Arab community in general, then we would have a revolution. On one hand, there’s a tremendous appreciation of Arabs and Palestinians for what has happened, when “Tel Aviv became the most important Arab capital” during the siege of Beirut, to use the words of a PLO leader. But most of them also overlook the main impetus. This is expressed by them asking us when are we going to make the next step, when are we going to win the elections. This, of course, is the wrong question. I haven’t seen yet any assimilation of what has happened or an attempt to see its political implications. I think there’s a basis for an Israeli-Palestinian strategy of joint struggle, as one movement. I don’t want to say that this idea is very popular. One essential element in such a strategy is the two-state formula. There is no other platform on which one can meaningfully build such a joint struggle, one which has potential for growth, one which projects a minimal sense of physical security in both directions.
Many Palestinians do now speak quite openly about the two-state solution. I was on a panel recently with Ibrahim Abu-Lughod in Ann Arbor. He spoke after me, and he presented a complementary argument for the same positions. He argued that one should look at the specific and unique Palestinian experience: lack of territory, dispossession, dispersion and so on. Those need immediate answers. He indicated that all the categories specific to the Palestinian experience are addressed by the creation of an independent state on any part of Palestine, lt may not be the just solution but, he was arguing, the two-state arrangement would fundamentally change the nature of that experience.
How important was Arafat’s meeting with the Israel-Palestine Peace Council?
I think it’s a very, very significant event. Here is Ya’acov Arnon, who comes out of the Labor Party. His whole political past is a good, solid, socialist Zionist position. In this country, it’s been treated as a non-event, lt received six lines in the New York Times, compared to a quarter page on the meeting of the rejection front in Tripoli. I think it’s an historic, dramatic change in the structure of internal Palestinian politics. It is a shift from consensus politics to plurality confrontation politics. This is happening while the rejection front is meeting in Tripoli. Some Palestinians, before the Palestine National Council meeting, were predicting that Arafat would lose his job. This shows the importance it had on the Palestinian side.
As far as I can tell, it had a lot of repercussions in Israel. But this is not the most important thing in my view. I see its main importance in the vistas it opens for a joint struggle, lt was very prominently featured, as a result of this whole campaign to make it illegal, brand it as treason. I hope this treason law will pass, will be adopted. I’d like to see them try to put Peled in jail. Can you imagine all these political trials going on? It would be wonderful.
You don’t think it would stop people meeting?
Oh no. On the contrary. They would love that. Peled is a man of principle and deep commitment. I don’t think it would have an immediate effect in Israel, but it would have an impact on Peace Now and on some of the people in Labor. They are becoming curious about the PLO, and about the perspectives they can offer their people. Yossi Sarid, a Labor dove, was saying all the time that we are ready to meet with the PLO, but only if it’s really top-level meetings. He’s honest in saying that. In his calculus, Sartawi was not high enough. Being a shrewd politician, he wants it to have some consequence, lt would have an effect on this group of ten or 12 Labor MPs who see themselves as an opposition inside Labor. But the problem is how to use it to go on. That is always the trouble with the Council, because of its structure as a club. They will legitimize the PLO a little more in the US, which is important, project a little bit more legitimacy on the PLO in Israel, but then that’s it. They will wait for the next meeting.
What next for the Committee?
I think that this question of the legitimacy of joint work has to be somehow articulated more strongly. The meeting in Tunis can be used to articulate this view more strongly on the Palestinian side. The Palestinians — the Birzeit people, some of the Bethlehem people — understand it very well. They work with us, understanding the potential that is opened to them and realizing that at the same time they help us to expand. But they still get quite a lot of heat for that, from the local community and the student council. There were people who said to them that the timing was bad, and that they are not just individuals, that they are, in fact, taken to represent the whole West Bank population. They were told that they could not just go there and speak as individuals.
It’s a problem. They understand the potential of this strategy, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t difficulties. This whole strategy has to be legitimized on some kind of national level, lt is too important to be a tool in interactional politics. In fact, these people at some point were thinking of setting up their own political party in order to have legitimacy for defining their own positions. I understand that one of the things that was discussed unofficially in the meeting between the “three musketeers” and Arafat was that the PLO encourage the leaders of the occupied territories to cooperate with the peace forces in Israel. This was not in the communiqué, but this was one of the points that was discussed. Here is what the joint communiqué said: “In the meeting, the situation in the Middle East was reviewed in depth, as well as ways of common action towards permanent and just peace in the Middle East. Chairman Arafat expressed his appreciation for the role of the Israeli peace forces in the struggle for a just and lasting peace.”
Could you speak about the balance of forces in the West Bank with regard to the question of cooperation with Israeli peace forces?
I cannot say anything quantitative. I think there’s a tremendous amount of sympathy for the peace movement, a tremendous amount of support for the idea of two states, simply to get these Israeli soldiers out. But it hasn’t become easy for us, and there’s a long way to go. I think it is still part of Arab politics. People are afraid to get into a confrontation by taking anything less than the most “patriotic” line. But Arafat has now done it and it’s beautiful.
What are the prospects for broadening agreement inside Israel where people claim there is a broad shift to the right?
I disagree completely. I think what people see is support for Begin, which certainly exists. But 55 percent of the people say that they want immediate withdrawal from Lebanon. Support for Begin does not constitute either ideological support or support for all his policies. I think there are many people who see that their good friend Begin is under pressure. He’s very charismatic, a very clever manipulator. People would like to give him a hand. I don’t think that most of the people who support him, who are Sephardic Jews, are ideological right-wingers. They are not racists. They’re not the settlers. They’re people who participate marginally in the political process, aside from having the right to vote. Their support is a gut reaction to their perception that their symbol of unity is being put under pressure. That is the way I read it.
The question really is over some 25 percent of the people. If one can win those to a clear, determined position, then I think the rest of the battle is going to be easy. The problem is Labor as a party. There are many people in Labor who project good ideas, but as a party it projects bad ideas.
Is the battle going to take place inside the confines of the Labor Party?
Yes. At the same time, both the Committee and Peace Now are desperately trying to do things in the Sephardic community. lt will be important beyond whatever political solutions there will be to the conflict. It’s not a problem of the peace process, it’s a problem of Israel.
What do you think the complications are politically in Israel of the present occupation of Lebanon?
The occupation is a big headache, it’s not considered a picnic in Israel, that is for sure. People are afraid, disgruntled. The soldiers are very demoralized.
But at the same time the government seems to be holding quite firm.
Yes. We have seen governments holding firm despite the dissatisfaction of the people. It’s not the first case. What is important is to establish that there is, in fact, dissatisfaction. I think if Lebanon was in a little stronger position internally, and could sit it out for six months, which most Lebanese perceive that they cannot, then I think Israel would be in very bad shape. As I say, 55 percent of the people want immediate withdrawal. That’s potential for agitation inside and outside the army. But there are no indications that the Israeli troops are going to be out of Lebanon any time in the foreseeable future. Oh, I think Israeli forces will be out. I think they’ll be out of the south, too. They will control areas through Haddad. If the Lebanese can stand the occupation, which is of course the way they could get even with the Israelis, it will become a popular issue. I think that they will be forced out by popular pressure. I think that the Lebanese will be willing to make those concessions which the Americans consider reasonable, and then the Americans will get Israel out.
What’s happening lately in the armed forces, the reserves and the soldiers’ movements?
There are two peace movements, and alongside each of them there’s a soldiers’ movement, and there are lots of people in them. The one that’s closest to us has about 1,500, “There Is a Limit.” They demand immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon. They signed a document saying that they won’t go. It was worded somewhat indirectly so as to protect them legally, but that’s what it said. The other soldiers’ movement is associated with Peace Now, “Soldiers Against Silence.” It doesn’t have very clear political demands, but it implies that this war went too far. Basically the two movements should be seen as one. Given the possibility that within a few months there will be another war, I have serious doubts about the reliability of significant parts of the army.
How do the Committee and the broader elements that that Committee represents relate to West Bank forces? The West Bank people feel threatened by the pro-Jordanians. To what extent can progressive forces obtain or maintain the upper hand in this relationship?
This is not the first time that such an issue has come up. It came up in the context of the civil administration. The question for us has been, is the Committee for or against? But the committee is neither for nor against. Obviously we support the Palestinians. Our position has been that we support the Palestinian rejection of the civil administration.
I personally do not believe that we have the right to prevent the Palestinian forces from playing tactical games. If they would have found it useful to play along with the civil administration, we would have had to respect it. On the other hand, there are forces in the Committee which are trying to push for specific stands. For example, the Communists are pushing very hard for taking an anti-Reagan plan position. And in fact they are sometimes even violating the rules of the game of the Committee by using its platforms to attack the Reagan plan. We don’t feel that we are entitled to take such a stance. If the PLO leadership sees, at this stage, some kind of a crack to get through to somewhere, we’re not going to stand in their way. The consensus of our activists is that this is outside the range of the Committee, to be for or against the Reagan plan.
Everybody understands, more or less, that it’s a bad plan. That is not the question. The question is whether we are going to get into a dispute with the PLO as to whether they should or should not try to use it for whatever way they could see best for them. The same applies to the “Jordanian option.” If some of the Palestinians can go along with some kind of Jordanian machination, then I think that their sense of urgency is probably the overriding concern at this stage. We will obviously prefer to deal with the pro-PLO forces than with the pro-Jordanian forces. This goes without saying. The question is not between Jordan annexing the West Bank and the West Bank becoming an independent state. My impression for quite a while has been that Jordan does not want to annex the West Bank, lt wants to have a dominant influence there. They are not interested in actually absorbing the West Bank. That would just make them hostage to Israel.
What about the maneuvers to constitute a new government out of Labor? What effect would it have on the prospects for peace forces?
It definitely would not help the prospects of the peace forces, although it may improve the chances of political solution. These two things are independent. One can have a “resolution of the conflict” with a parallel destruction of the peace forces. Once things start moving at the top, you can’t mobilize people any more.
Still, I would like them to move at the top. New coalitions at the top are not inconceivable. Then the role of the peace forces may be, at the stage where that kind of government confronts strong resistance to some steps, to mobilize support for the government or to block, say, provocative settlers’ moves, or stand with the Palestinians to defend against last minute attempts at fostering conflict.
How do you assess the impact of the Kahan report? Your judgment is that Begin will hold on no matter what?
He will try to hold on. Then the only guys who will pay are going to be the soldiers. The generals will not be willing to accept this. Then the issue on the agenda will be the integrity of the army. Many people in the coalition value the integrity of the army. The army in Israel is a transcendental kind of myth.
What about having Sharon go and everyone else stay? Would it satisfy the army?
Quite likely. That is what I consider the worst outcome. Because right now Israelis perceive the war as a catastrophe. If he’s forced out completely because of some massacre the Phalangists committed anyway, just because he didn’t get on the phone to stop them, his moral record has been cleared for posterity. He just was not given the chance to bring about the fruits of the war. He had to leave because the Phalangists killed some Palestinians.
Within your Committee what is the perception of the Sabra/Shatila massacre?
Israel planned it.
And participated in its execution?
At the top level, definitely. The lower level doesn’t make any difference. Normally, when we have a massacre we do not ask whether these were Sephardic Jews or Ashkenazi Jews or Druzes that did it. The chain of command is crystal clear, and hence the direct implication in war crimes of Sharon, Begin, Eitan, Shamir and company. If you read the interim conclusions, there are certain terms that they have to use, and a conspiracy is clearly implied. To conclude that nine people at the top of a political-military administration were simultaneously negligent, this is what we call a conspiracy. It’s just that somebody didn’t see where they met.
Even if the report is not a whitewash, will it have impact?
The conclusions of the inquiry commission are not going to strengthen what the political mood was at the end of September. This has toned down a) because of time and b) because of the language. There’s still a certain potential in the investigation for destabilizing the political system. But I wouldn’t bank on it.
What’s going to happen next?
My personal vision is that the peace movement has to develop non-violent civil resistance tactics on a large scale. The human and numerical potential is there. If the Palestinians will come along, it will be like a forest fire. Topping the large demonstration means moving a new, larger vanguard to the next level of struggle. The demonstrations, for me, show the potential. There are different kinds of projections one can make: for example, that the next major Israeli violence in the territories will not be able to occur without a thousand people having to be arrested. This will be a dramatically new stage, lt can cause a crack. You need to have people like those who were working with us in the spring of last year or during the war. They have to be multiplied by five or ten in order to insure that we have 1,000 or 1,500, rather than 100-150, sit there until they are arrested. This is a way of probing the Israeli mind. Are you willing to pay that price? Every time the settlers or the government escalate their moves, they have to arrest that number of people.
The other dimension is the extent to which these tactics project into the Palestinian camp. With the next piece of land to be confiscated, 5,000 people will just lie there and occupy this piece of land, and the Israeli peace movement will flock to join them. If this is accepted as a tactic, there will be marches on the West Bank and inside Israel symbolizing certain elements of the struggle. These are things which will fire the imagination, will provide élan, and will draw the younger generation. It will be the locus of the new Palestine.
In this direct confrontation over the next piece of land, the next settlement, you wait until the bulldozer takes you away. Yes, they will take us away. I think that it will have an explosive effect. We have this experience when 100 Israeli Jews get arrested in Ramallah or Hebron. Everybody is upset. In the beginning they used to say that these are the “illegals.” That stage has passed very quickly. I think there is a tremendous potential. There are also tremendous barriers.