A Commentary from Israel: Peace Camp – Dead or Alive?

Against the Current, No. 119, November/December 2005

Michael Warschawski

A FEW WEEKS ago my friend Ilan Pappé published an article under the title “There is no peace camp in Israel.”  These words were originally spoken in a lecture delivered by the intellectual activist—or the activist intellectual—at a conference that took place in Fribourg, in the framework of the Swiss Social Forum.

The article stimulated two kinds of extreme responses: on one side, anger and affront among various circles of the Israeli left; and on the other side, among pro-Palestinian activists who leapt at the claim that there is not (yet?) an Israeli peace camp, quoting Pappé in malicious joy in order to finally bring to an end any attempt to take an interest in what is going on within Israeli society, and in order to hold up to contempt the international activists and organizations that try to nurture links with those Israelis who are struggling against the occupation.

I will deal with this last response briefly at the end of this article; at this stage I want to deal with Pappé’s claim in the context of the offense that he caused to some of my Israeli friends.

“How can one make light of the selfless work of the Taayush people, of the demonstrations of the Women in Black, of the persistence of the women of Checkpoint Watch, of the courage of the various refusers or of the Anarchists Against the Wall?”—they ask in dismay.  Most of them, by the way, do not belong to a single one of those organizations, and only on rare occasions show their faces at their demonstrations.

Indeed I do not think that Pappé is making light of those hundreds of activists who work day and night for the struggle against the ongoing protracted occupation; he knows them and he values them.  Pappé’s claim relates to the fate of the broad peace camp and its influence on the Israeli political discourse in general and on the actions of the government and of the various institutions of the occupation.

To hear the words of anger and dismay of Pappé’s critics, it looks like we find ourselves in the era of the first Intifada, that nothing happened to that peace camp in August 2000, and since then to this day it has been business as usual.  Where do they live?!

Clinically Dead

Indeed, to all who have not yet managed to see it, I will remind them again that the Zionist peace camp fell gravely ill in July 2000 and entered a state of clinical death in October of that year.

It fell gravely ill when it willingly fell victim to the audacious propaganda of the “generous offer” of [then-Prime Minister] Ehud Barak, the apple of that peace camp’s eye, and adopted his lying claim according to which Yasser Arafat never intended to reach a peace agreement with Israel and only took advantage of the Oslo period to weaken Israel so as to destroy it later.

Why was it so easy to knock the Israeli peace camp onto its face, and why did it run so fast into the embrace of the right in order to greedily swallow its racist frame of reference?  Those questions require a separate and elaborated discussion on the structural limitations of that Zionist peace camp, its progression throughout the entire Oslo period, and its sickly longing to be part of the national Zionist consensus.

However, despite those serious limitations, it cannot be denied that in the eighties and to a lesser extent in the nineties there did exist a mass active Zionist peace camp, which succeeded at least twice in bending the government’s strategy: It brought about—not by itself, of course—the withdrawal from Lebanon, and it brought about the recognition of the PLO and the opening of negotiations with it.

This political and ideological movement of growing parts of the Zionist public was indeed first and foremost a consequence of the resistance (Lebanese and Palestinian in 1982, and the first Intifada in 1987-1989); but the existence of consistent activism against the occupation and the war from the side of political actors who were based first and foremost on the principle of rights (as opposed to merely “for the good of Israel”) played a decisive role.

Without the Committee Against the War in Lebanon, the Committee of Solidarity with Bir Zeit, Dai la Kibush, Bat Shalom, Gush Shalom and many other organizations, it is doubtful if Peace Now would have come into existence—and still more doubtful if it would have come to the positions that it reached with time, through debate and adoption of the positions of its competitors to its left.

As Uri Avnery puts it, “we were the small wheel that set in motion the larger wheel, which itself at a certain stage set in motion public opinion and the policy of the government.”

In other words, the Zionist peace camp did not act from motivations of realizing rights, but from fear or from international pressures or from “the corruption of Jewish society” or from the danger inherent to the “Jewish democratic” character of the state.

Therein is the fundamental difference between the Zionist peace camp and the more radical forces, which struggled against the occupation without any consideration for its successes and its costs.  But between those two sectors always existed reciprocal relations, with the more radical minority incessantly applying pressure on the majority of the peace camp, nourished by it and pushing it to more and more mass actions against that occupation.

When pressure from outside actors, especially the Palestinian resistance, became more strong and effective, this increased the ability of the more radical activists to push forward the broader peace camp.

Since 2000 the picture changed completely.  The “small wheel” had no large wheel to activate, and in any case the minority that is struggling against the occupation cannot influence, either directly or indirectly, the makers of policy.

To this internal reality must be added the international context, which is acting at this stage in favor of the policy of occupation and recolonization: the victory of the neoconservatives in Washington, who are completely in favor of the strategy of the Israeli neoconservative gang, Netanyahu-Barak-Sharon, and the 11th of September, which gave a green light to the policy of general oppression and political unilateralism on the pretext of the war on terrorism.

In this regard Pappé is absolutely right that the Israeli peace camp, in the broad sense and as a movement with influence over decision makers, has ceased to exist.  But not only that: also the part that did not give up the struggle against the occupation cannot escape unscathed from this harsh test, because its effectiveness was conditional on the existence of the broader peace camp.

Whoever does not see this and is offended by the analysis of Pappé and others are not only sticking their heads in the sand, but are also preventing themselves from being able to take maximum advantage of their own activism, as long as that broader peace camp has not been revived.

Opening the Fence

Here is not the place to come to terms with all the issues involved in the anti-colonial strategy of the courageous but diminished forces that today are swimming against the current, against all the currents.

I will only hint that at the present stage, when we do not have the ability to influence those who make decisions and our activism remains basically in the realm of protest (and when there remains nothing to do, the obligation to protest remains), we must strengthen the strategic ties with those who can, in the medium term, apply pressure on those decision makers—that is, with the international community, through the global social movement.

I will say further that the prevention of closing the fence between Israeli and Palestinian activists in any way is also the obligation of the moment, and that does not require a mass peace movement: even individual activism can be an opening in the fence that has been built between the two peoples.

This last point returns us to the article of Pappé and the responses that it elicited among various circles in the solidarity camp all over the world.  The malicious joy that was elicited among some activists at Pappé’s announcement of the death of the peace camp is not at all healthy, and a bad odor emanates from it.

Those activists got their proof that there is nothing to expect from the Israeli people, not yesterday, not today and not tomorrow, that they are all deeply implicated in colonialism, and there’s no point wasting time on them.  With this approach they have jumped feet first into the discourse of global cultural war, in which everyone is called upon to line up behind a nation or ethnic group against another nation or ethnic group.  From there the path to an essentialist racist position is a short one.

We should know that within the global social movement there is an important political confrontation, between factors infected in one way or another by that essentialism and those who are struggling with all their strength to create bridges over the ethnic and national walls.

For the latter, the existence of an Israeli anti-colonial camp, even a small one lacking in influence, is a crucial instrument for the cultivation of the perspective of national partnership against ethnic retrenchment and the danger of cultural war.

At a time when the Zionist colonialism adopts the form of a wall, of the separation and apartheid fence, it is our duty to encourage and to strengthen within Israeli society any and all initiatives and all movements that refuse to reconcile themselves with the decree of separation and the philosophy of cultural war on which it is based—even if their numbers are tiny and their influence at this stage is negligible.

Michael Warschawski (Mikado) is the author of two recent books, Toward An Open Tomb: The Crisis of Israeli Society (Monthly Review Press) and On the Border (South End Press).  This article first appeared in the magazine Mahsom (21 August 2005).  Translated from Hebrew by Mark Marshall.

ATC 119, November-December 2005