Israeli peaceniks fear sinking into shadows: Sarah Helm reports from Jerusalem on agonising among the left wing on its role in the pursuit of peace, and a sudden friendly gesture from Libya

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IN ONE of Jerusalem's exclusive neighbourhoods, the leaders of Israel's most influential liberal movement, Peace Now, are talking tactics ahead of a new round of peace negotiations. When should they start their sticker campaign? Should they speak out more, directly opposing government policy, or give Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister, more time?

They reach no firm conclusions. Like a good-humoured academic seminar the circle of professors, lawyers, students, kibbutzniks - who constitute the grassroots support of the Israeli left - toss their theories around, almost aimlessly.

Some Peace Now activists have recently been talking of the need for mass mobilisation to support the push for peace, and to propel Mr Rabin forward in the negotiations, before the opportunity slips away 'once and for all'. Israel is at a new turning point, they say, and the left could play a crucial role in galvanising public opinion, as it did in 1978, when 100,000 Israelis took to the streets, calling on Menachem Begin, then the Likud prime minister, to grasp the opportunity of peace with Egypt.

If such a moment has arrived, however, where is the sense of urgency? Where are the mass demonstrations now? Why is it that the voice of the left in Israel appears to have been erased out of the political debate?

Nearly a year after the election of the Labour government, the left should be enjoying a heyday. For the first time in the country's history a radical left-wing political party - Meretz - is part of a government coalition, its supporters largely to be found in the popular movement of Peace Now. But power appears only to have stifled the voices that a year ago were calling for an independent Palestinian state, for direct negotiations with the PLO, and for radical improvements in Palestinian human rights. The latest Israeli government coalition crisis, which came to a close yesterday, after a month of hard bargaining, has portrayed Meretz as a party too busy squabbling with its political adversaries to address any real policy issues.

Uri Aviniery, a radical peace activist and writer, who has recently broken away from Peace Now to start an alternative group, says: 'Now Meretz are in the government they cannot criticise it, they are so pleased to be part of the consensus. There is an intolerable vacuum. The peace camp has fallen silent.' Tom Segev, a leading Israeli journalist, says people voted for Mr Rabin because he was seen as a hardliner. 'Now Meretz are part of that and their voters feel betrayed,' he said.

The so-called doves of present-day Israeli politics first emerged after the 1967 Six-day war, when the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began. Before the occupation Western concepts of liberalism, of individual rights, were largely alien to the Zionist socialists who built the state of Israel. But a horror of colonialism, of the inevitable injustices of occupation, gave birth to a new Israeli left, which defined its politics almost solely in terms of policy on territory.

'To be a dove or a hawk in Israel is to believe in relinquishing land or not. For the left this one issue has dominated all else for 25 years,' says Avishai Margalit, Professor of Philosophy at Hebrew University and a Peace Now activist.

Peace Now, established in 1978, does not see itself as a human rights group or a pacifist group (it has never opposed army service), but as a single- issue political movement campaigning for an end to the occupation, and drawing its support largely from Israel's middle-class intellectuals and professionals of Ashkenazi - or East European - origin.

The political views of Peace Now members cross a wide spectrum. Some radicals argue the case for peace by putting the cause of Palestinian human rights first. But the majority unite around an essentially pragmatic belief that without peace, Israel's future cannot be secure. 'In Israel you cannot afford to be a peacenik in the ordinary way. The stakes are too high here. We have to convince people that peace is good for Israel, not make moral arguments,' says Gavi Bargil, Peace Now's general secretary, a kibbutznik, and reserve brigade- commander.

Peace Now has played a long game, understanding that a small, though influential, minority cannot influence hardline Israeli public opinion overnight. In 1982, Peace Now's potential influence was displayed in the mass demonstrations which helped bring about Israel's withdrawal form Lebanon. 'We are killing and we are getting killed,' was a controversial but effective slogan used at the time, showing that Israelis could demonstrate against war during a war.

When the left came in from the political cold in June, euphoria was briefly in the air on university campuses and in some middle-class suburbs. But in December, disillusion set in after Meretz cabinet members supported Mr Rabin's unprecedented decision to deport more than 400 Palestinians without charge. Meretz's acquiescence in the deportations caused shock among supporters.

Meretz figures in government have since barely disguised their embarrassment over the decision. But they have done little to win back the confidence of their supporters on other fronts, further alienating many doves by backing, in principle, the recent closure of the occupied territories which is imposing severe hardship on Palestinians. And Meretz has made no audible demand for fresh Israeli compromises in the peace process.

'To listen to the debate in Israel now you would think it was between Rabin and the right,' says Uri Aviniery.

There is a sense in the Peace Now ranks that already the left is in danger of sinking back into the shadows if it does not make its voice heard soon. Meretz would not win seats in government if elections were held tomorrow, say many political commentators. And if Mr Rabin is not pressed to make progress in the peace talks the conflict will escalate, playing directly into the hands not of the left, but of the right.