In Pursuit of Peace

Mordechai Bar-On, In Pursuit of Peace: A History of the Israeli Peace Movement, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996. Pp.470, biblio. ISBN 1-878379-53-4.

Mordechai Bar-On has written an overview of the Israeli peace movement from the birth of the State in 1948 up to the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993. It is therefore essentially a well-researched chronological record – a documentation rather than an analysis. It is also an account of how both the nationalist dreams of Eretz Israel and Filastin had to be compromised such that both peoples could attempt to share the land in peace. To outsiders this may seem a selfevident solution that should have been agreed long ago, but those in the grip of conflict would argue that it was clearly a matter of survival. The fear of the ‘other’ overrode all other preoccupations.

Jews as well as Palestinians have become the prisoners of their history and sometimes the perpetrators of historical myth. Even so, two thousand years of Jewish existence at history’s margins as civilisation’s scapegoat was a psychological baggage which could not be disposed of overnight. Add to this, both Arab rejection of partition and the Jewish desire to create a homeland in 1920 (San Remo Conference), 1921 (the separation of Trans-Jordan), 1937 (Royal Commission), 1947 (UN Resolution) as well as the isolation and murder of the Jews in the Holocaust – and the barrier towards even the most elementary dialogue became insurmountable. This conjunction of events would have tested even the most rational and moderate of Israelis in locating a pathway through the morass of emotions and suffering to establish a dialogue with Palestinian partners.

Through the declassification and opening of state archives in the 1980s, Israeli writers such as Benny Morris have indicated that there were groups, often centred around the leftist Zionist party Mapam which wished to entertain a peace option both during and in the aftermath of the war of independence in 1948, in government and in the military. Significantly, an Israeli Peace Committee composed of Mapam leaders, members of the Communist Party and several intellectuals was formed in 1949. It was essentially a mouthpiece for the Soviet controlled World Peace Council and therefore its causes were cold war neutrality, stopping German rearmament and banning nuclear weapons. The pertinent issue of ending the Israeli-Arab confrontation was unceremoniously circumvented. As Bar-On comments, it was psychologically too sensitive and too controversial a proposition for Israelis to contemplate at a time of state-building.

By 1948, Ben-Gurion had effectively come round to accepting the position which his Revisionist rival, Vladimir Jabotinsky, had stipulated in his famous article The Iron Wall over a quarter of a century previously in that there was an intrinsic contradiction between Arab and Israeli interests. Yet Ben-Gurion’s more strident policies were sometimes opposed by his Foreign Minister and later his temporary replacement as Prime Minister, Moshe Sharett. Peace, however, at that time in the 1950s was an illusion. As Bar-On remarks ‘Sharett, Mapam and the other moderates could at most present a pious conviction that by refraining from aggravating the conflict through aggressive initiatives, Israel might lay the foundation for reconciliation sometime in the remote and forseeable future.’ The shedding of the Stalinist era forced many leftist Israelis to think anew. In 1957, with the assistance of Martin Buber, the monthly magazine New Outlook was established. This became a forum of debate for hitherto heretical views during a 30-year period of publication.

Contacts with the Arab world also came through the Middle East desk of the World Jewish Congress which was originally established to monitor the fate of those Jews who remained in Arab countries. Secret talks with the FLN concerning the future of Algeria’s Jews produced important links with Nasser’s Egypt. Such independent action aroused the ire of Israel’s Foreign Minister. Indeed Golda Meir confiscated the passport of the desk’s secretary general rather than brook a rival centre, an alternative approach towards peace. Golda symbolised the attitude of the Labour old guard. Shortly after the Six Day War in 1967, she questioned a report of Liova Eliav, a former party secretary general which spoke about an evolving Palestinian nation and economic development for Palestinian refugees. Her reply was to quote a biblical passage “The poor of your own town must have precedence. We have enough troubles within ourselves.’ While this book provides a faithful record of the expanding peace movement, there is a real sense of deja vu in its latter part, a recapitulation of familiar episodes, a retelling of recent Israeli history rather than an ideological dissection of it. This is why the earlier part of the book, pre-1967, is the most interesting section.

Bar-On, himself, was a much respected leader of Peace Now and a member of the Knesset for the Civil Rights and Peace Movement in the 1980s. He writes, as he states in the preface, as a biased insider but one who strives for objectivity at the same time. The book thus very much reflects a Peace Now interpretation.

Was Peace Now therefore ultimately successful – especially in the light of the successive Oslo Accords? Bar-On does not directly answer the question, but Peace Now attempted to swim within the mainstream of Israeli opinion and thereby influence state policy. It purported to be both without and within. The implied answer is that Peace Now was responsible for the breakthrough in 1993 because its gradualist strategy influenced moderate Labour Party members, percolating through finally to Yitzhak Rabin, the man whose hardline ‘iron fist’ policy was designed to crush the Intifada.

Yet this almost non-ideological approach of the lowest common denominator left open a role for groups on the left such as the 21st Year, influenced by the philosophy of Michel Foucault, or Yesh Gvul whose members refused to serve on the West Bank, to pursue a more radical approach and thereby to create a political chain reaction. It is this aspect of the peace movement, recently covered in Reuven Kaminer’s incisive The Politics of Protest, which is underplayed by Bar-On.

Peace Now was the only organisation which could mobilise hundreds of thousands of ordinary people with a non-threatening humanistic message of co-existence with the Palestinians – and this book is, to quite a large extent, a history of Peace Now and coloured by its approach. Right-wing opponents unfairly labelled its adherents ‘the beautiful people’, but that aroma of saintliness and inoffensiveness does permeate this work. Even so, this does not prevent a recognition of its success in changing the face of Israeli-Palestinian relations. This is a good general summary of the development and evolution of the Israeli peace movement.

Terrorism and Political Violence vol. 9 no.3 Autumn 1997

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