I can remember precisely what the weather was on Israeli Independence Day in 1983: Horrid. On the mountain near Nablus where Peace Now was demonstrating against the establishment of a new settlement, the rain was coming down in big cold drops that soaked through my ‘rain-proof’ shell and down jacket and sweater and shirt and skin. By Independence Day, the rainy season is supposed to be over. The sun is supposed to shine on picnics.
Thousands of settlers and their supporters were expected to come to the mountain to picnic that day and hear Housing Minister David Levy speak at the formal dedication of the settlement of Brakhah, which would be one more statement that Israel would rule “Judea and Samaria” forever. Only a few hundred showed up. The Peace Now demonstrators came by the busload and surrounded the ceremony, with very soggy soldiers separating the rings of people. The peace activists had not planned on a day of fun, and they by the thousands came despite the weather. So David Levy gave his speech inside a prefab structure – that’s what it looked like over the heads of the soldiers – and peaceniks rode home cold and soaked, but happy that they’d dominated the field that day.
Except that 25 years later, according to Peace Now’s excellent settlement monitoring effort, Brakhah has about 1,200 residents. The demonstrators were there for an afternoon, and were gone.
Tonight, as I write, Peace Now is holding a celebration of sorts in Tel Aviv to mark 30 years of activism since it was born in response to Anwar al-Sadat’s offer of peace. I’m not sure a peace movement, especially one with the word “Now” in its name, should feel happy about a 30th birthday, which represents a dream long deferred.
Peace Now can point to notable successes. Unlike most movements on the left, it did not wallow in arguments on minute points of doctrine. Instead, it began as a coalition of everyone who agreed that Israel should be willing to give up land taken in 1967 in exchange for peace. Laborites who still supported the Allon Plan could back the movement, along with believers in a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines – though very few of those were willing to speak their views publicly in 1978. Peace Now’s moderate coalition arguably helped create the public backing for the deal with Egypt, and later the Oslo Accords. And over those 30 years, it has helped an essential shift in Israeli public opinion. A two-state solution is no longer a radical idea.
Yet 270,000 Israelis are now living in the West Bank, not counting East Jerusalem. Ehud Olmert, former believer in the Whole Land of Israel, now believes in giving up land as long as he doesn’t have to confront settlers or even members of his own coalition who would like to keep building in Givat Ze’ev. Of the reasons that Palestinians don’t trust Israelis, the ineluctable spread of the settlements is surely central. Peace Now helped make a division of the land into conventional wisdom, while the settlers and their backers in government made division of the land more difficult every day.
I could list many reasons that Peace Now has not gotten further. This failure has many fathers – Israelis, Palestinians and others. But an essential imbalance, as demonstrated that day at Brakhah, is a major factor. Settlers “created facts” – they expressed their views by staying on the hilltops, looking down on Palestinians in every meaning of the words. Their opponents spoke and demonstrated and went home. Even if they believed as passionately in their cause, their homes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were not statements in the same way. Vice Premier Haim Ramon has admitted that all of Ofrah, the first Gush Emunim settlement on the mountain ridge north of Jerusalem, stands on private Palestinian land. Ofrah was established with the connivance of Shimon Peres, then defense minister. Ramon, who made the admission, has done nothing to remove illegal outposts. The pattern of government connivance and active support for lawbreaking continues. The “Zionists” of the hilltops have blurred the borders and the laws of Israel. In the name of the land, they have taken apart the state – with the state’s willing help. Inside the cabinet as well, supporters of settlement acted, often illegally, while their opponents spoke.
I am not suggesting that Peace Now should have ignored laws in the way that the settlers did, or turned to violent confrontation. But democratic protest is at a disadvantage against a revolutionary movement that undermines the state in the name of patriotism. The playing field has never been even.