Fifty Years of Occupation: The Effectiveness of Activity for Peace in Israel, 1967-2017

In a world of “alternative facts,” it is now more important than ever to dust off the actual facts and bring them to light. One fact which has been forgotten, or which we have been made to forget, for many years is that before the movement for settlement of Jews in the Occupied Palestinian Territories emerged, there was quite a lot of civil society activity in Israel after the 1967 War against the very fresh “occupation.” Already toward the end of 1968, the Movement for Peace and Security had begun to organize to demand the opening of peace negotiations with the Arab states and recognition of the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people. According to the recommendations of the movement, in exchange for such an agreement, Israel was to withdraw from the territories that had been conquered in the war and thus gain from two worlds: regional peace and extraction from the quicksand of the occupation.

The movement included hundreds of academic members, including professors of history Yehoshua Arieli and Jacob Talmon, many students, kibbutz members (mainly from Hashomer Hatzair) and also veteran left-wing activists like Simha Flapan and Uri Avnery. The Movement for Peace and Security, which in many ways was the mother of the Peace Now movement, numbered at its height a few thousand members and energetically carried out activities in Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Its voice was heard loudly in the context of the mediation attempts by the UN emissary, Gunnar Jarring, and later with the appearance of the Rogers Plan. Some of its members actually established a political party called Ness, which ran candidates in the 1969 elections but did not pass the threshold to secure seats in the Knesset.

The movement was the first to present the formula of land for peace. It also warned — long before it became fashionable to do so — of the dangers the young Israeli democracy would face if the occupation were to become a permanent situation, as indeed has occurred.

The Golden Age of the Peace Movement

The Yom Kippur War and the accompanying public trauma brought about the weakening of the Movement for Peace and Security until it collapsed. However, already in 1978, soon after the upheaval that led to the Likud takeover of the government, still under the influence of the war that had taken place five years earlier, and as a reaction to the establishment in 1975 of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) and the burst of settlement activity it created — the Peace Now movement was established, the largest Israeli peace movement to date. Although Peace Now was launched in an effort to persuade the Begin government to sign a peace agreement with Egypt, within a few years it shifted to focusing on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians in the OPT, a subject which it continues to deal with to this very day.

But this was not the only movement; the latter part of the 1970s and the 1980s, and particularly after the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, was the golden age of peace activism in Israel. Then, the peace movement encompassed dozens of organizations and hundreds of thousands took part in its various activities: demonstrations, meetings with Palestinians, the circulation of petitions and group meetings held in private homes. This proliferation of initiatives led to a wide variety of ideas and operations. Thus, there were self-declared Zionist groups and others that moved away from the Zionist ethos; there were groups of women only, mixed-gender groups, secular groups, groups founded by religious activists, institutionalized organizations and small groups lacking in defined structure or status for its members. In short, there was a little bit of everything. The presence of the peace organizations within civil society and in the public discourse during those years was very strong and unprecedented.

Those years were also characterized by an increase in the level of institutionalization of the various peace organizations, and some of them even began to employ paid staff. The scope of the contributions that began to flow into the peace camp during those years was larger than ever before, or since. As tends to happen in such situations, it was also accompanied by the organization of groups and bodies of citizens from the other end of the political spectrum. It appeared at the time that there were two civil society camps with similar strength: the peace camp and the settler camp. In time, it became apparent that, while the peace camp began to lose its momentum, the settler camp developed, became more established and, in the final analysis, entered into the heart of the Israeli government establishment — there are those who say it has even taken it over.

Paradoxically, the appearance of authoritative factors — the government led by Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s — the negotiations for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the signing in 1993 of the first Oslo agreement symbolized the beginning of the decline of the first great wave of peace activism. A collaborative effort between the government and the peace organizations to create a joint establishment and bolster civil society’s political power in support of the process might have been expected; however, that is not what happened.

There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, many of the peace activists — and even more of the supporters of their activity — were no longer intensively active, as they thought that the issue had been transferred to the national leadership and that there was no more place for peace activism at the civil society level. Secondly, many activists suffered from burnout. With the issue of peace now in the hands of the government, they left the game and turned to their personal lives. Thirdly, the authorized decisionmakers, led by Prime Minister Rabin, preferred to remove themselves from the peace organizations and to distance themselves from what was happening — whether because they did not identify with the agenda of those organizations, or so that the political process would not be perceived as being in the hands of the left. And finally, more than a few peace activists were afraid that their continued activism, including pressuring the government to advance matters connected to the agreement, might provoke the opponents of Oslo to harden their positions further against the process.

Period of Dramatic Decline

The 1990s, therefore, witnessed a dramatic decline in the scope of peace activism. The outbreak of the second intifada at the end of 2000, along with the heavy-handed policies adopted by the Israeli government to confront the wave of terrorism flowing over the country, led to a certain reawakening of peace activism, mainly in its more radical forms. Given the background of bloodshed everywhere, the arguments of the radical peace activists did not elicit broad public support, although they did help the activists themselves to overcome obstacles that their colleagues had experienced in the past when they tried to criticize the mainstream while at the same time holding an ongoing dialogue with it. The radicalization of peace organizations during this period, in addition to the Palestinian attacks, brought about a weakening of support and eroded to a great degree the readiness of people in Israel and abroad to contribute money to the organizations that were still active.

Since then, and to this very day, peace activism continues in Israel in two channels: regular warnings about settlement activity, the harsh consequences of the ongoing occupation and the violation of human rights in the OPT; and various attempts to develop strategic thinking about future options, whether in the context of a two-state solution or others, such as an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation or one state.

It should also be noted that disappointment on the Palestinian side about the failure of the peace movement to maintain its momentum toward an agreement on the Israeli side, along with a series of Palestinian decisions concerning anti-normalization in relations with Israelis, including with peace activists, led to a drastic reduction in the number of joint activities and, in some cases, even to the creation of tensions between the two sides.

Assessing the Balance

The bitter truth, as is well known, is that despite the many rounds of talks, peace has not been achieved and today does not even appear on the horizon. The OPT not only have not been returned, but have seen the influx of a massive population of Jews over the years. There are doubts today about whether this population can be considered a bargaining card of value in the context of negotiations for a peace agreement. Israeli control over the OPT has deepened over the years and, in recent times, we hear more voices calling for the annexation of the territories, including a recent call from President Reuven Rivlin to apply Israeli sovereignty over the whole area.

Does this mean that the work of the peace activists over the years was in vein? Do they deserve a failing grade? The answer is, at one and the same time, both yes and no.

An Unreasonable Expectation

Why no? The familiar claim that the fact that a peace agreement has not been signed between the Israelis and Palestinians bears witness to the so-called failure of the peace activists is baseless. Its source is the unrealistic expectation that civil society organizations, limited in their size, can bring about an historic strategic change. A simple examination of history will demonstrate that in no place in the world have peace organizations brought about such an historic transformation on their own. At most, for example, in the case of Northern Ireland, when the conflict was ripe for a solution — when the silent majority and, even more so, the political leaders who had the authority in their hands, arrived at the conclusion that the time had come for a fundamental change in the situation — the peace organizations provided the tailwind needed in order to bring about the signing of the agreement (although not always to stop the violence).

The conclusion of historical conflicts, and particularly ongoing conflicts like the Israel-Palestinian one, is a deep process with many facets that are beyond the ability of civil society organizations to bring about on their own. Therefore, all those who developed in themselves and in the hearts of others the hope that the Israeli peace organizations would succeed in changing the direction of the national trend were both mistaken and misleading. In this sense, the tremendous coverage that was given by Israeli media entities — and even more so abroad — to peace activism like the photogenic demonstrations by Women in Black created an illusion without foundation. Such exaggerated expectations were particularly prevalent on the Palestinian side. When it became clear that the Israeli peace organizations were incapable of fulfilling the hope that they could change the course of history in the direction of peace, their Palestinian counterparts frequently gave up on them. In turn, this weakened even more the ability of the Israeli peace activists to continue their opposition to occupation and provided strong support to their political opponents.

Reasons for Failure

If we are talking about failure, it was registered on another level, settling in the hearts of the people. Over the years, the peace organizations failed to convince the majority of the Jewish-Israeli public that their reading of the political situation was realistic and that there was a basis to their fundamental assertion that the Palestinian side was interested in peace and would lay down its arms if there would be concrete progress towards the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Also, the constant warnings of the spokespeople of the peace camp over the years that the continuation of the occupation would soon bring disaster upon Israel have so far not been realized. In the eyes of the thirdparty observer, the security situation did not dramatically improve when the peace process was advancing, and it did not dramatically worsen when the process collapsed. Thus, the credibility of the peace organizations was placed under a big question mark.

As for the dangers that the continued occupation created for the future of Israeli democracy, now, once again, it appears as though the signs of danger are only apparent to those who are convinced by the agenda of the peace movement. The universal human rights discourse that most of the peace activists used and still use today has not been adopted by the broader Jewish-Israeli public. The waves of terrorism were not perceived as a reaction to the ongoing occupation but rather as concrete evidence, not of a vision of peace but of an apparently constant Palestinian desire to continue the bloody struggle until it would be decided in their favor. The fact that the Palestinian side did not produce large and vocal bodies that would echo on their side the message of the Israeli peace movement reinforced the prevalent claim that there is “no partner” on the Palestinian side.

Additionally in this context, the specific socio-demographic composition of the various peace groups played a role here. Much has been written about the negative repercussions of the fact that a majority of the activists were, and continue to be, secular, Ashkenazi, highly educated citydwellers, members of the middle and upper-middle class, or what prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu once labeled “the old elites” whose time has passed. The regular presence of many women in the ranks of the peace camp, which, given the Israeli context of a discourse that relies on male-dominated areas of military and security expertise, contributed to the perception of the peace camp as being inadequate to deal with issues that relate to national security. This also made it more difficult to convince the Jewish-Israeli public that the message of there being “no partner” was unfounded.

Not only did the peace organizations have ongoing difficulties with the Jewish-Israeli public, their contact with the Israeli-Arab public was limited and sporadic. The desire not to distance themselves too much from the Zionist consensus led to the result that cooperation with organizations and peace activists among the Arab-Israelis was very limited. Exceptional to this trend were the women’s organizations for peace, which have had very intensive Jewish-Arab cooperation. However, due to the gender factor mentioned earlier, the total influence of those organizations was very limited.

An additional point of weakness was the organizational and ideological rivalries that divided the Israeli peace movement and made it difficult to create an umbrella movement which could be converted into an effective political pressure force. The Zionists battled with the non-Zionists, the supporters of refusal to serve battled with their detractors, the women’s organizations battled with the joint organizations — and all of this without even beginning to mention the bitter struggles between the organizations over financial resources, which have dwindled over the years.

A Lasting Legacy

And yet to summarize the many years of peace activities as if nothing was achieved would not be doing history justice. Although peace seems farther away today and the movement is smaller than ever, in one area, the peace activists can be proud of very meaningful achievements: the formulation of the public discourse in Israel about the conflict. If we assume that language influences consciousness, then we can talk about some very concrete achievements. Thus, for example, peace activists and their supporters were the first in the Jewish-Israeli public to begin using the term nakba without fear and in a systematic manner, both in speech and in the writings they published. This served to point out the disaster that Israel’s independence brought about for the Palestinian public. This term, which was totally outside of the Israeli-Jewish lexicon, and even evoked strong public opposition, has become a term which has been used in broader circles far beyond the peace movement.

This is also the case with the term kibush (occupation) as a description of Israel’s control of the territories. Again, when peace activists used this term to describe a situation, they evoked tremendous public anger, until the term eventually became “naturalized” into the public discourse. But we are not only referring to specific words but rather to the creation of an ongoing ideological alternative to the “there is no choice” thesis, and to the idea that it is possible to have an enlightened occupation.

And, even more so, following the unceasing statements of the members of the peace movement, many in Israel today admit that the Israeli democracy within the Green Line has been severely damaged by the ongoing occupation. The “separation thesis,” which claims that Israel can continue to be a full democracy within the Green Line while at the same time keeping under its control millions of Palestinian lacking in those rights on the other side — a thesis which, for many years, was at the foundation of the Jewish-Israeli consensus — is now full of “holes” poked by, among others, the peace activists. The harsh opposition from government bodies and many groups within the public against organizations like Combatants for Peace and Breaking the Silence constantly challenges the “psychological calm” of the Jewish public and is thus a reflection of their importance.

The mirror that the Settlement Watch project of the Peace Now movement holds up before the Israeli-Jewish public and, equally, the information provided by organizations like B’tselem to international bodies — given the fact that the general public and the various establishments of Israel have closed ranks vis-à-vis the international community — are of tremendous value and will gain great appreciation, if not today, then by future historians. Those historians will be able to use all of the information provided by those organizations in order to prove that there always was in Israel a minority, even if a small one, that did not reconcile itself to the immorality of the ongoing control over another people, which worked under very uncomfortable circumstances to bring about an end to the conflict.