Supporters of the Oslo peace process have, for seven years, persistently argued that there was no choice but to make peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel’s most bitter of enemies.
As diplomacy raised and dashed hopes – and bus bombings and Palestinian riots terrified Israelis – the peace camp maintained its underlying position: You can make peace only with your enemy, and the Palestinians were committed to resolving the conflict peacefully.
But when recent violence between Israel and the Palestinians spiraled out of control, leaving at least 70 people dead, mostly Palestinians, some liberal Israelis received a rude awakening.
Many peace supporters are now questioning whether the fundamental assumptions behind the drive for peace may have been flawed, as Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat failed to show immediately that he was willing to help calm the storm that engulfed the region.
Nobody expressed it better than did Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister, speaking somberly to a news conference Saturday night.
“A picture is emerging today that there apparently is no partner for peace,” he said. “This truth hurts – but this is the truth, and we must face it with eyes wide open and draw the conclusions.”
Those conclusions, however, were far from clear. Polls indicated that support for the peace process remains strong.
According to a Gallup poll published in the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, 68 percent of Israelis continued to support the peace process with the Palestinians, while 27 percent objected. The supporters included 48 percent of those who said they voted for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former hard-line Likud Party prime minister, in last year’s elections.
Strong support for the peace process came alongside deep fear and frustration, with 69 percent of Israelis voicing fear “for the future of the state” and 67 percent saying they were unsatisfied with the way Barak has handled the crisis so far.
The polls were taken before Palestinians destroyed Joseph’s Tomb, a Jewish holy site in the West Bank town of Nablus, after Israel abandoned the site under agreement with the Palestinian Authority, and the kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah gunmen on Israel’s northern border.
The explanation, apparently, is that although Israelis are frightened by the latest cycle of violence, they also want to avoid a war at all costs and know the end result will likely be the same as a negotiated peace.
“I share completely Barak’s deep disappointment from Arafat and the Palestinian Authority,” said Ran Cohen, a Knesset member from the left-wing Meretz Party.
However, he added, even if the only decision is to go to war, Israelis and Palestinians will eventually have to find a way to reach a compromise.
Across the peace camp, which has often slammed harsh Israeli responses to Palestinian violence, there were signs of support for Barak’s handling of the situation.
“The peace camp is in a very difficult situation right now, because we advocated a process that has ended,” said Janet Aviad, an activist from Peace Now, an Israeli peace advocacy group.
The only consolations for Aviad are that Israelis have not taken to the streets calling for Israel to reconquer West Bank towns or the Gaza Strip and that polls show that Israelis overwhelmingly want to go back to negotiating table.
For now, however, Aviad believes groups like Peace Now must remain silent until calm is restored.
“The overwhelming feeling is disappointment, and at this moment when the situation is rather grave, the thing to do is to be silent,” said Aviad. “The peace movement really is not relevant right now.”
On the farthest end of the peace camp, Uri Avneri, head of Gush Shalom, an Israeli peace movement, criticized the mainstream peace camp for its silence and for failing to condemn the government’s behavior toward the Palestinians.
“In any great crisis, the so-called left and peace movement disappears from the scene,” he said. “The idea that we are the victim is so deeply entrenched that even in a war where Israel is killing dozens and wounding thousands we still consider ourselves the victims.”
Avneri also points out a fundamental difference between Israelis and Palestinians as the current conflict escalates. “The Palestinians can easily absorb 500 casualties because they are fighting for their existence,” he said. “Israel cannot absorb even 20 casualties because people do not know what they are fighting for.”
Back toward the center of the political spectrum, other peace activists also believe the ultimate conclusion of the current round of bloodshed will be a negotiated peace.
“The alternative to a viable peace process is very clear to us,” Uri Savir, a chief negotiator of the Oslo accords and now a Knesset member from the Center Party, said in a telephone interview. “It is very dangerous to both sides.”
Savir said he was “not surprised” by the outbreak of violence, given Palestinian frustration with the process. He also admitted that “some things could have been done differently” in the Oslo agreements, but he would not elaborate.
Yet according to Savir, a peace agreement after such a severe outbreak of violence would “get even stronger public support.” The peace camp must, he said, explain to Israelis that the process will never bring about “immediate reconciliation.”
“It is about a diplomatic breakthrough toward a very gradual reconciliation process between people that has taken much longer than people deluded themselves,” Savir said.
Should the violence continue, Savir predicted, it would likely be followed by another Camp David-like summit.
“The peace camp will come out again and there still will be the basic divide: Do you solve it by force or don’t you solve it by force?”
But with violence escalating, the knowledge that it was unlikely for Israel ever to solve the conflict by force could do little to prevent a deterioration of the situation.
Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s deputy defense minister, who has long been in the “pragmatic” peace camp, is aware of the consequences of the destruction of trust between Israel and the Palestinians.
Commenting on the Palestinians’ dismantling of Joseph’s Tomb despite an agreement with Israel, Sneh seemed to have lost all confidence in the Palestinian leadership.
“It casts a very dark shadow of doubt over the viability of continuing negotiations with them,” Sneh said. “If at this stage, they reject our agreements, then a hand outstretched for peace can quickly become a fist.”