Beginning with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and continuing during the first intifada in 1987-93, large numbers of Israelis took to the streets to express their clear rejection of the state’s military policies. 400,000 people angrily protested Israeli general Ariel Sharon’s complicity in the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut. “Peace camp” demonstrations of varying size during the first Palestinian uprising happened regularly in the squares of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But in the fall of 2000, commentators invariably point out the absence of the peace camp from public debate in Israel. As soldiers fire live ammunition at civilian Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the protests in Israel draw in the thousands, not the tens of thousands. Many long-time doves have rallied behind Prime Minster Ehud Barak and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), apparently losing faith that the Palestinian leadership can be a peace partner. Others have remained silent through two months of excessive IDF force, calling into question the depth of their opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. The peace camp’s compromised posture is personified in Shlomo Ben Ami, Barak’s minister of internal security and acting foreign minister. Long considered one of the peace camp’s prominent intellectuals, a man who nurtured dreams of building a social democratic party to challenge Barak from the left, Ben Ami is now the very face of brutal repression in the Territories and police killings of civilian demonstrators inside Israel.

As Barak and Likud leader Ariel Sharon danced around a formal alliance in October and again in mid-November, it was obvious to everyone in Israel and the Arab world that making Sharon a minister would bury the “peace process” and open massive, armed confrontations between the Palestinians and Israeli security forces. As dovish Labor MK Uzi Baram said, the debate over an “emergency government” was similar to Labor’s discussions when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982: “We supported [the invasion] and later we regretted it. Today as well, we are walking with our eyes wide open into a mistaken move. In six months we will all regret it.” Yet Yossi Sarid — leader of Meretz, the political party representing Israel’s mainstream “peace camp” in the Knesset — was sending mixed signals to Barak and the peace camp’s rank and file.

Sarid, in front of hundreds of party members who attended a council meeting in Haifa in late October 2000, claimed that 90 percent of Meretz members supported a “national unity government” including Sharon. Could 90 percent of Israel’s left-Zionist party really support a government including the man who sparked the conflagration at the al-Aqsa mosque? Although Sarid says he personally opposes including Sharon, it’s hard to tell. About ten days after Palestinian demonstrators began dying in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel, it was Sarid who started to talk about an “emergency government” and a “national leadership government.” The confusion of Sarid and his constituents in the establishment “peace camp” — who despite their support for a Palestinian state retain loyalty to the Zionist project — is perhaps the most striking phenomenon in internal Israeli politics during the al-Aqsa intifada.

Peace Now: Orphaned by Meretz?

For many years, there has been a clear dichotomy between the Zionist or “moderate” peace camp and the much smaller non-Zionist or anti-Zionist peace camp. The Zionist peace camp — with Peace Now, the largest and oldest extraparliamentary movement, at its center — maintains complicated ties to Israel’s left-leaning political parties. The response of the Zionist peace camp to the intifada has been weakened by the problematic politics of Meretz, the party to which most veteran Peace Now leaders belong.

Meretz, which is perceived by most Israelis as a leftist party, is gradually abandoning its legacy of political and social protest to focus on one issue: the question of religion and state. As Palestinian demonstrations in the Territories and in Israel broke out, Meretz published daily advertisements in the newspapers calling for, of all things, a boycott of ultra-Orthodox kosher products. Immediately before the uprising, Meretz itself boycotted the events held in Israel to echo the September 26 Prague protests against corporate globalization. Meretz representatives did not participate in a debate held by Histadrut (the Trade Unions Federation of Israel) which drew hundreds of people one week before Prague. No Meretz contingent marched with the 1,000 protesters in central Tel Aviv on September 26. This apparent warming of the Zionist left to neo-liberal ideology coincides with the fragmentation of the pre-Oslo peace camp.

Before 1993, the prime demand of Peace Now was that Israel drop its long-standing refusal to negotiate with Palestinians. After the Oslo accords and the beginning of negotiations with the PLO, the size and reach of the extraparliamentary peace camp gradually declined. [1] However, Peace Now and others in the moderate peace camp began to adopt the political program of the radicals. If at one time the movement had reflected the positions of the two left-Zionist parties — Labor and Meretz — Peace Now now stood to the left of both. Two years ago, Peace Now placed a large advertisement in Israeli newspapers proclaiming support for dismantling the settlements and establishing a Palestinian state in all of the territories occupied in 1967, with Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. Within Meretz, a small yet vocal minority affiliated with Peace Now — including the Jerusalem branch of Meretz — wants the party to adopt the latter position. The Meretz leadership, headed by Yossi Sarid, absolutely rejects this idea.

A generational shift has also taken place within Peace Now: the young leadership, including the field activists, has moved to the left. By contrast, the veteran leadership remains committed to Labor and Meretz. The veterans control the resources the movement solicits, especially in the US. Inter-generational tension was evident during October, when the youth took to the streets over the strict opposition of the veteran leadership and Meretz. The conflict deepened when the young leadership went to the demonstrations and rallies and found only the remnants of the radical camp — groups like Hadash (the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality, a Jewish-Arab party with a hard core of communists), Gush Shalom (a radical peace group led by veteran journalist Uri Avnery) and Yesh Gvul (made up of soldiers who refused to serve in the Occupied Territories) — marching beside them. Where was Meretz, the movement’s voice in the Knesset? The perceived radicalization of Peace Now had clearly cost the movement many of its supporters. Those veteran activists believe that there is no need for extraparliamentary activity. “Barak will do the job,” as the slogan goes.

Hadash and the Radicals

On the non-Zionist left, the Oslo process and the intifada have also disturbed once solid coalitions. For years, Hadash was the hegemonic force among Palestinians living in Israel. That era is over. Israel’s Palestinians now divide their allegiances among three tendencies: Hadash, the Islamists and MK Azmi Bishara’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which campaigns for civil rights for Palestinians as a national minority within Israel. In the latest elections Hadash lost support among Palestinian voters and gained support among Jewish voters. While the vast majority of Hadash supporters are still Arabs, support for the party in Tel Aviv and other Jewish cities rose by 50 percent. Nevertheless, Hadash remains the only Israeli party that defines itself as “Jewish-Arab,” in opposition both to the Zionist parties, which have lost all their support among Palestinian voters, and the Islamic movement and the NDA, neither of which works among the 83 percent of the Israeli population that is Jewish.

The confrontation with the Palestinians in the Territories, combined with the repression inside Israel, poses a double challenge for Hadash: on one hand, it must prove that it supports peace at a time of crisis within the peace movement. On the other hand, it still purports to be a Jewish-Arab partnership, and more specifically a class partnership between Jewish and Arab workers. But Israeli society is becoming increasingly tribal. The Hadash voice nearly disappeared after the first week of October 2000: the media in Israel were closed to Hadash and to other spokespersons who criticized the government and called for a joint Jewish-Arab struggle.

Other radical groups like Women in Black, Gush Shalom, Yesh Gvul and Rabbis for Human Rights have continued protests and solidarity actions during the current uprising, but their numbers remain small.

Toeing Yossi Sarid’s Line

As the intifada progressed, the radicalized elements of Peace Now and the non-Zionist left forged an alliance of necessity. But first, for two weeks in October, Yossi Sarid of Meretz actively stifled Peace Now’s attempts to organize opposition to Israel’s violence in the Territories, weaving the blanket of silence from the left so widely noted in the international press.

Already during the intifada’s first days, when only Hadash and Gush Shalom were demonstrating in Tel Aviv against the government, Hadash and Peace Now commenced negotiations toward holding a joint demonstration. Peace Now was divided: the veteran leadership cautioned against protest actions, on the pretext that the movement must not be “drawn into extremism.” The youth demanded activity in the streets. Ultimately, Peace Now decided to demonstrate in front of Barak’s official residence in Jerusalem. Hadash agreed to hold a separate demonstration in Tel Aviv, in front of the Defense Ministry, and to support the demonstration in Jerusalem. On the evening of October 3, the two demonstrations happened — but without Peace Now. Key Peace Now activists came to the meeting points from which protesters were to travel to Jerusalem and told them the demonstration had been canceled. The reason: Yossi Sarid had vetoed the action.

Several days later, when several Palestinian organizations in Jaffa decided to hold a rally of mourning and protest, Hadash announced that it would participate. Peace Now also negotiated its participation with Hadash member Nassim Shaker, an attorney and the only Arab member of the Tel Aviv Municipal Council. Mere hours later, following pressure from the Meretz leadership, Peace Now decided that members of the movement would participate “on an individual basis.” Only after the Meretz leadership met several Arab MKs in Haifa at the end of Yom Kippur did Sarid consent to lift his veto. Nevertheless, for the entirety of October, Meretz did not take part in the protests as an organization. Meretz activists who phoned the Tel Aviv party offices to demand protest actions heard a recorded message: “You have reached the office of Meretz. The office is closed due to the Sukkoth holiday.”

One week after the massacre at the Haram al-Sharif, Meretz published its “Resolution of the Meretz Leadership.” “Meretz strongly condemns all forms of violence,” the large advertisement began, and continued in that neutral vein. “Meretz supports the prime minister’s decision to continue to advance the peace process despite all of the difficulties and obstacles.” But the ensuing section made the party’s sympathies clear: The statement called on Yasser Arafat “to make a supreme and determined effort to put an end to the hostilities.” Hence the only printed statement from Israel’s most influential left party chose not to assign responsibility for the deaths in Israel and the Territories. It deliberately ignored the criminal conduct of the army, the Border Guards and the police in repressing protests. Don’t the prime minister and the minister of internal security command the security forces? Meretz ignored them as well.

Coalition of Mutual Suspicion

Orphaned by its mainstream wing, Peace Now is being pulled in a more radical direction. Before Peace Now finally committed to hit the streets on October 9, Hadash, Gush Shalom, Yesh Gvul and unaffiliated activists led numerous rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The young Hadash activists even marched in Tel Aviv on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, against the background of the pogrom perpetrated against Palestinians in Nazareth by residents of Nazareth Ilit. On the closing evening of Yom Kippur, a rally unlike anything Peace Now had seen before unfolded in Tel Aviv. At the spot where Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995, hundreds of people booed MK Anat Maor (Meretz) when she called for “strengthening Barak” and condemned “violence on all sides.” In contrast, the crowd loudly cheered MK Tamar Gozansky (Hadash) and the leader of Gush Shalom, Uri Avnery, who both spoke forcefully in opposition to the government.

Peace Now’s cooperation with Hadash and the remnants of the radical peace camp peaked at a 7,000-strong rally in Haifa on October 21. The Committee of Arab Mayors, the umbrella organization of the Palestinian Arab community in Israel, and a long list of NGOs joined them under the slogan “Just Peace and Full Equality.” [2] Each member of the coalition approached the rally with trepidation. Peace Now, without the support of Labor or Meretz, feared Hadash and the Arab public; the Arab mayors felt that “the Jewish peace camp had not proved itself worthy” when faced with early October’s repression; the NGOs feared a loss of funding — especially from US Jewry — due to their overt cooperation with communists. Gush Shalom did not take part.

Hadash, for its part, feared that Peace Now would disrupt the coalition at the last minute, as happened two weeks earlier. So they held an independent rally featuring Hadash MKs, Mustafa Abu Rayya, the mayor of Sakhnin, and activist-historian Ilan Pappé (head of the Department of International Studies at Haifa University). The independent rally and the joint protest were attempts to mend internal rifts caused when party leaders canceled a planned rally on October 14 following the “lynching” of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. When that rally finally happened a week later, 5,000 rank and file carried red banners, accentuating Hadash’s communist identity as if in protest. Even within Hadash, confusion at crucial moments is polarizing the ranks of peace activists.

In some ways, the confusion and division within the peace camp — moderate and radical alike — mirrors the confusion of the broader Israeli public, which seems to want peace with the Palestinians without ending the occupation of Palestinian territory. [3] For the moment, peace activists argue about the meaning of the low numbers of protesters. Is Israel in a phase like the first stages of the Lebanon war, when all of the Zionist parties supported the invasion, and protests began feebly before cresting at the huge gathering following the Sabra and Shatila massacre? Or is the Israeli peace camp unable to organize appropriate responses to military and police brutality in Israel and the territories at all? It is too early to know if the fragile coalition of communists, Green Line Palestinians and NGOs will survive. But it is clear that the days of the Barak government are numbered. A national unity government might unite the opposition, including extraparliamentary groups, and breathe new life into the Israeli peace camp.


[1] See Reuven Kaminer, The Politics of Protest: The Israeli Peace Movement and the Palestinian Intifada (Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 1996).
[2] Fifty-three organizations signed on, including: Ha’shomer Ha’tsair, the Oriental Democratic Rainbow, Workers’ Hotline, Green Course, Bat Shalom, the Jewish-Arab community Neve Shalom and the Hadash women’s movement, the Movement of Democratic Women. Hadash was not permitted to add its name to the statement because the NGOs feared its signature’s impact on their fundraising. Hadash issued a separate statement calling for participation in the demonstration.
[3] According to a Gallup poll conducted in the fourth week of October, 60 percent of those questioned supported the “continuation of the peace process with the Palestinians.” Only 35 percent opposed this. Fifty-seven percent supported the “establishment of an independent Palestinian state” and 37 percent opposed. However, if elections were held today, 47 percent would vote for Binyamin Netanyahu, and 69 percent supported a national unity government — both measures that would retard progress toward a just peace.

How to cite this article:

Efraim Davidi "Protest Amid Confusion," Middle East Report 217 (Winter 2000).

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