Left-wing have their faith in peace blown away

Israeli Mood

One of the first victims of the internecine war engulfing Israel, Gaza and the occupied territories is liberal Jewish support for the peace process.

One of the first victims of the internecine war engulfing Israel, Gaza and the occupied territories is liberal Jewish support for the peace process.

Israel's left-wing believed, with varying degrees of conviction, that it was finally possible to build a new relationship with the Palestinians, and through them with the Arab world.

It would take time, there would be setbacks, but they felt they were on the road. The 1993 Oslo accords marked a historic breakthrough. The "process" was irreversible. They beavered at the grassroots, with schoolchildren, with women's groups.

With Arab partners, they guided tours to the Nablus steam baths and Gaza refugee camps. They rejoiced that Jews were shopping again on the West Bank, gambling at the Jericho casino, playing billiards in the classy new BethlehemInterContinental. They went to court to stop governments demolishing Palestinian houses built without unobtainable permits. They exposed civil rights abuses by Jew against Arab.

Two weeks ago, Utopia shrivelled before their eyes. First they blamed the Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, for his provocative visit to Temple Mount, the Muslim Haram al-Sharif, in Jerusalem on 28 September. But as the violence spread, they turned their frustration on Yasser Arafat.

Like most Israelis, what they saw and heard, day after day, persuaded most of the left that the Palestinian leadership had seized on the Sharon affront as a pretext to wage diplomacy by other, more lethal, means. They agreed with the acting Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, that Ehud Barak's government had "gone to the outer limits of the capacity of any Israeli government in order to reach a reasonable compromise with the Palestinians". And that at Camp David in July, Mr Arafat had slammed the door.

"Without any doubt," said the novelist Amos Oz, the most eloquent Israeli advocate of reconciliation, "I blame the Palestinian leadership. They clearly did not want to sign an agreement at Camp David. Maybe Arafat prefers to be Che Guevara than Fidel Castro. If he becomes the president of Palestine, he'll be the leader of a rough, Third World country and have to deal with sewage in Hebron, drugs in Gaza, and the corruption in his own government."

The doves have not been transmuted into hawks. They are not joining the bullyboy cries of "death to the Arabs". But they are bitterly disappointed. As Lily Galilee wrote in the liberal daily Ha'aretz: "It is one thing to be thought of as a liberal and even a traitor. It is an entirely different matter to be considered a fool whom reality has slapped in the face."

Their self-confidence, intellectual as well as moral, has collapsed. Janet Aviad, a veteran leader of the Peace Now movement, admitted yesterday: "Even some of us who have been participating in the grassroots peace work have doubts now about the trustworthiness of our Palestinian friends. We have been shocked by the expressions of hatred for each other, on both sides."

The left still believes that one day Israelis and Palestinians will have to sit down and find a way to live alongside each other in this narrow, contentious strip of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. But they are reluctantly reconciling themselves to the fact that conflict, rather than peace, is around the corner.

They are schooling themselves to champion a more hard-headed negotiating strategy. Shimon Peres's vision of a "new Middle East" has evaporated with the lynch mobs and the helicopter gunships.

Ms Aviad said: "We have to urge our political leaders to return to the table in a sanguine, pragmatic approach." And what should that be? "We have to separate these two peoples as much as possible," she replied, "to place each in an equal position to the other, and hope that we will transcend the hostility. Perhaps we have to advance to another interim agreement, which avoids Jerusalem."

If the left is galled by the "we told you so" gloating on the right, it is salvaging a modicum of self-esteem with a riposte of its own. "The last two weeks have demonstrated," said Ms Aviad, "what Peace Now has always claimed - that the Jewish settlements are the main obstacle to peace, that theslow, steady expansion of the settlements was the cause of enormous anger for the Palestinians, and that they are a great security burden for Israel. The sooner settlement activity is stopped and the most problematic settlements are removed, the better."

The peace camp may be down, but it's not dead yet.

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