Mordechai Bar-On, In Pursuit of Peace: A History of the Israeli Peace Movement (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996).

Iman Abdel Megid Hamdy, “Dissenters in Zion: The Bi-nationalist and Partitionist Trends in the Politics of Israel,” unpublished PhD dissertation (Cairo University, Department of Political Science, 1996).

Reuven Kaminer, The Politics of Protest: The Israeli Peace Movement and the Palestinian Intifada (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 1996).

Simona Sharoni, Gender and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Politics of Women’s Resistance (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995).

The Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, the intifada, that erupted in December 1987 elicited a mass movement of Israelis opposed to the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza trip. As both Mordechai Bar-On (pp. 69 ff) and Reuven Kaminer (pp. 17-21) explain, the roots of this movement are in the post-1973 war period. The specter of Israel’s military vulnerability and the realization that superior military strength would not ensure peace displaced the arrogant triumphalism generated by the 1967 war, sowing disillusion and disorientation among many young Israeli Jews. This sentiment led to extensive protests against Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which saw the birth of a movement of army reservists who refused to serve in Lebanon (Yesh Gvul) and massive demonstrations in Tel Aviv.

Bar-On and Kaminer cover much of the same ground from ideologically distinct, though often allied, perspectives. Bar-On began his career in the Israeli military, ultimately serving as head education officer of the Israel Defense Forces in the 1960s. He comes from a similar labor Zionist establishment-military background as the reserve officers who launched the Peace Now movement in March 1978 with their letter to Prime Minister Menachem Begin warning him that the morale of the IDF would be impaired if the government did not respond positively to Anwar al-Sadat’s peace overture and continued to prefer territorial expansion to peace. Bar-On subsequently became an adherent of Peace Now and a Member of Knesset from the Citizens Rights faction of the dovish Zionist Meretz parliamentary bloc.

For Bar-On, Peace Now constitutes not only the demographically preponderant element of the peace movement (which is indisputable), but its only politically effective form: a loosely organized non-party current of opinion that prominently advertises its military credentials and presents itself as the expression of “sane” Zionism. Its amorphous, patriotic character and social connections to the labor Zionist establishment enabled Peace Now to mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators during the 1982 Lebanon war and the intifada. These characteristics have also prevented it from posing a concrete political alternative or engaging in oppositional activity when the Labor Party has been in power.

Kaminer is a veteran activist of the non-Zionist left. He situates the rise of the protest movement in the context of the decline of party politics in Israel, the emergence of the international new left, and the tradition of internationalism and anti-imperialism represented by the Communist Party of Israel, the Israeli Socialist Organization (Matzpen), New Israeli Left and Israeli Socialist Left. Kaminer presents his book primarily as a documentary account of the noble and even heroic actions of the peace movement, and his analytical claims are modest. A careful reading, however, points to the dynamics that permitted radical critiques of Zionist ideology and practice articulated by Marxist parties, extra-parliamentary political formations and protest groups to became acceptable to Peace Now, dovish elements of the Labor Party and Meretz. Kaminer gives generous attention to the ad hoc committees that proliferated in the 1980s and especially during the intifada, particularly those that linked Israelis and Palestinians in acts of political solidarity.

One indicator of the significance of the Israeli peace movement is that it has been noticed in the Arab world, and is becoming an accepted part of the discourse of Arab intellectuals on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as reflected by Iman Hamdy’s Cairo University doctoral thesis, “Dissenters in Zion: The Bi-nationalist and Partitionist Trends in the Politics of Israel.” Hamdy surveys the precursors of the Israeli peace movement during both the Palestine Mandate and pre-1967 eras in addition to examining both Peace Now and Meretz from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. While much of the information in her thesis is not new, it constitutes one of the most extensive presentations of this material to the Arab world. Therefore, it is regrettable that it is written in English rather than Arabic. For Hamdy, the Israeli peace movement is a story of failure “to present a viable alternative to mainstream Zionism based on a more accommodating approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” whose fundamental explanation is “the inherent contradiction between Zionism and…universalist values” further inhibited by the militaristic character of Israeli society (pp. 215, 228, 231 ff). This conclusion misses much of the nuance of Kaminer’s approach and underscores that even the most conciliatory elements in the Arab world are unlikely to accept Bar-On’s understanding of Zionism and the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For Bar-On, the main successes of the peace movement include pressuring Menachem Begin to negotiate the Camp David accords, the dismissal of Ariel Sharon as minister of defense following the exposure of his “indirect responsibility” for the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, and “the restraining influence that B’tselem and other human rights organizations exerted on the conduct of the security agencies…during the Intifada” (p. 320). Beyond these specific measures, Bar-On believes that the most significant accomplishment was to broaden the scope of public debate in Israel (p. 323). Because Kaminer is critical of the Camp David accords and the Oslo agreement, he is more equivocal than Bar-On about the accomplishments of the peace movement, though he avoids the temptation to assess blame for its shortcomings. For him, the movement’s most important achievement is to have kept the flame of universalist values and internationalism alive in Israel despite the hegemony of Zionist particularism (pp. 216-17).

Simona Sharoni draws attention to the accomplishments of the women’s section of the peace movement in exposing the discourse of militarized masculinity in Israel. Gender and the Israeli- Palestinian Conflict offers a conceptual discussion linking feminist theory and issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a broad overview of Palestinian and Israeli women’s history, and a survey of the activities of Israeli and Palestinian women during the intifada focusing on their efforts to challenge the masculinist structure of both Palestinian and Israeli nationalist politics and to build a delicate alliance based on the politics of sisterhood and internationalism. Sharoni is probably correct in suggesting that the women’s peace movement constituted one of the most radical challenges to prevailing opinion in Israel. The crude sexual invectives directed against the weekly silent vigils of Women in Black (see also Kaminer, pp. 82- 97) indicates that the quiet dignity of this women’s protest was particularly threatening to right-wing, masculinist, Zionist sensibilities. Women’s organizations demonstrated greater longevity and less factionalism than many male-dominated groups, as well as a high capacity to forge ties with their Palestinian counterparts.

The other formation with a distinctive radical impact is Yesh Gvul (There is a Limit), whose refusal to perform military service in Lebanon was expanded to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the intifada. By insisting that there was a limit beyond which one could not obey the orders of even an elected government, Yesh Gvul challenged the prevailing Israeli view that military credentials are a prerequisite for political credibility and the associated masculinist cultural assumptions. Bar-On (pp. 228-30) and Kaminer (pp. 75-78) both note the strenuous efforts of some leaders of Peace Now, Citizens Rights and Mapam to preserve the Zionist consensus by repudiating and delegitimizing refusal of military service beyond the Green Line, in part because some members of their own organizations were attracted to the moral example of Yesh Gvul.

The phenomenon of Yesh Gvul exemplifies the creative zone of tension between the practice of the Zionist settlement project and universalist human values which produced important cleavages in Israeli society and made it impossible to continue the indefinite occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the pre-intifada style. At the same time, a peace movement formed exclusively by uncritically adopting the discourse of national security, as Peace Now has sought to be, is severely limited.

The Zionist elements of the peace movement have sometimes been insensitive to Arab political opinion and have perpetuated the illusion, applauded by Bar-On, that the United States would play a positive role in achieving Arab-Israeli peace. Whatever its success in maintaining the procedural viability of the diplomatic dance known as the “peace process,” the United States has never exerted the kind of pressure on Israel that would be necessary to achieve a just and stable peace, and there is no reason to believe that it will do so in the near future. Its insistently pro-US orientation led Peace Now and most of the Zionist peace movement to support enthusiastically the US-led assault on Iraq in the Gulf war (Kaminer, p. 188 ff) and to denounce the Palestinians who expressed sympathy for Iraq or Saddam Hussein’s gambit to link Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian occupied territories.

Shulamit Aloni, who has often spoken in admirably clear terms not limited by her status as the former leader of Citizens Rights, rebuked Yosi Sarid and others who expressed their disappointment with the Palestinians during the Gulf war crisis:

Why should I be disappointed with the Palestinians? Did I do something for them? Did the Israeli left do anything for them?… The Israeli left is a loyal part of the government and the establishment…. We tried to raise a moral voice…de facto we did nothing. The government continued to control the territories, to deny human rights, to destroy and to kill, and we are part of this because we did not declare a rebellion…. We were the fig leaf of Israeli democracy…. The Palestinians do not owe us anything. (quoted in Kaminer, p. 192)

This comment is just as valid for the post-Gulf war period. The Israeli peace movement failed to mount a determined struggle against the omission of a clear commitment to full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the agenda of the 1991 Madrid conference and the 1993 Declaration of Principles and its subsequent enabling agreements. While this does not discredit the many courageous and self-sacrificing actions of individuals and groups in the Israeli peace movement, it is an essential point to consider in assessing its successes and failures.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "The Israeli Peace Movement," Middle East Report 205 (Winter 1997).

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