A Dissenting Democracy

A Dissenting Democracy: The Israeli Movement ‘Peace Now’

By Magnus Norell, published by Frank Cass , London 2002, 160 pp



On the eve of Netanyahu’s election defeat in 1999, the British Friends of Peace Now hosted a public meeting in London at which a former Israeli Ambassador to the Court of St. James and a former British Chief Rabbi spoke. Not an unusual event in itself except that the room was filled by well-to-do middle class Jews – men in blue suits and their wives in wide-brimmed helicopter hats. Although the younger, more radical elements shuffled nervously at the margins, it symbolised Peace Now’s ability to read the communal mindset and thereby to appeal to a broad synagogue.

Peace Now in Israel has often been described as more a mood than movement, but it is a group that has captured the public imagination by fine tuning its political timing to maximum effect at watersheds in Israeli history. The huge demonstration after the massacre in Sabra and Shatilla – the equivalent of 5 or 6 million in London’s Hyde Park – laid the basis for the Kahan Report, Sharon’s banishment and Begin’s resignation.

Magnus Norell who is a senior analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency has written an interesting book on the Israeli peace movement in the 1980s albeit one that projects a sense of déjà vu to students of the Middle East. He points to Peace Now’s strength as simply ‘reacting and responding to changing circumstances’. This, he argues, is the reason for its tenacity and longevity. Indeed, its very genesis exemplified this, when 348 students at the Hebrew University signed an open letter to Begin in the aftermath of Sadat’s visit. In order to counteract the charge that only those who vehemently confronted the enemy or initiated Gush Emunim settlements were good patriots, they added their military ranks to their names on the petition. This struck a chord and some 250,000 Israelis eventually signed that letter. Rather than suffering tarring as pacifists or loony leftists, they gained the support of a quarter of all Knesset members. Peace Now was not ‘un-Zionist’ but profoundly Zionist.

Norell points out that Peace Now played by the rules but was not bound by them. Such flexibility extended to not aligning itself with any political party although it was undoubtedly closer to Mapam than to Techiya. Thus it could appeal to the liberal wing of the Likud and attempt a dialogue. Norell suggests that this all-encompassing political umbrella could only be erected by painting a somewhat diffuse picture of what was possible – ‘an emphasis on what not should be done instead of the other way around’. The quibble here is perhaps with Peace Now’s garnering of support through populist measures. Yet there are few Sephardim who now believe that squandering large sums on the settlements is preferable to aiding the poor and eradicating issues of social injustice. Indeed, the effects of the Intifada have probably increased the already wide gap between the wealthy and the impoverished.

Yet being all things to all people was also a weakness which some on the Left were unable to stomach. Marching to a different tune clearly made them feel that they at least doing something. One activist described Peace Now as a slow moving train that allowed people to get off at various ideological stops. Yet would the radicals have had the imagination or the ability to have persuaded Rabin to participate in a peace demonstration in his last public appearance in Rabin Square in 1995?

The Palestinians were somewhat mystified about the appearance of Peace Now. Their inability to distinguish between different Israelis – Labour and Likud are the same – even then was counter-productive. Indeed, it took several years for them to graduate from speaking with peripheral anti-Zionist admirers of permanent revolution such as Matzpen to dialogue with mainstream members of Peace Now. Perhaps some members of the PLO looked upon Peace Now as a Trojan horse with which to weaken and split Israeli society. Yet it seems that such dialogue in the 1980s instead convinced some Palestinians that a resolution on the basis of a two state solution was possible. Norell suggests that it was Peace Now’s insistence that the PLO had to renounce the use of violence and terror and recognise Israel that led to Arafat’s ambiguous statements in 1988. Oslo was perhaps the pinnacle of Peace Now’s influence since it placed the opponents of a two state solution on both sides in a distinct minority.

The existence of Peace Now is, as the author indicates, a powerful testimony to Israel’s vibrant democracy and follows in the tradition of Jewish non-conformity and dissent. The founding fathers Syrkin, Jabotinsky and Ahad Ha’am followed this path. They often referred to the prophets admiringly as lonely men of faith who confronted the ruling elite where all wisdom was supposed to reside.

Yet it is resilience that ironically characterises both Peace Now and Sharon – and an astute reading of the public mindset coupled with pin-point timing. Sharon learned this from his mentor, Ben-Gurion and has continually outwitted his opponents in both Labour and Likud. It is only Peace Now that understands the game as well and has been able to match him tactically. In the current violence, Sharon has won the first round. But as both Peace Now and the Prime Minister know only too well, it is not over until it is over.



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