Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Peace Now at 30

This month marks Peace Now's 30th anniversary. On Tuesday evening supporters will gather in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to mark the milestone.

The movement embodies the almost instinctive yearning for peace shared by virtually all Israelis. That's why Peace Now has charmed both Israeli and Diaspora Jews for three decades with its un-jaded enthusiasm for a Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians respect each others' aspirations, hear each others' narratives and live side by side in peace and security.
The movement emerged in March 1978 during Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, when 348 IDF reservists signed an open letter to prime minister Menachem Begin urging a more conciliatory Israeli negotiating posture, denouncing Begin's commitment to Judea, Samaria and Gaza as integral parts of Israel and opposing the settlement enterprise.

Since Anwar Sadat was, in effect, negotiating not just for the return of Sinai but also on behalf of the Palestinian Arabs, albeit against their will, Peace Now demanded that Begin cut a deal - any deal.

The founders of Peace Now were an eclectic bunch - liberal reservists, academics and Tel Aviv bohemians. Their aim was to present a Zionist alternative to Gush Emunim. They always knew what they were against - settlements and the "occupation" - but never managed to articulate a viable alternative.

Peace Now isn't oblivious to the strategic value of the West Bank. Its leaders know you can walk from Samaria to the Mediterranean, across Israel's narrow waistline and population hub, without stopping for a drink of water. Yet the group has an overarching devotion to the notion that "true security" can only be achieved with the arrival of "peace."

To attain peace now - notwithstanding what the Palestinians are saying or doing - has always required the group to almost willfully disregard the unpleasant realities of the Arab-Israel conflict. Its emphasis is exclusively on what Israelis should concede, as if our collective craving for peace alone can supernaturally overcome Palestinian intransigence, incitement, internal upheaval and the culture of violence.

Over the years, many but not all of Peace Now's positions have been mainstreamed. Israel is indeed negotiating with the PLO. Most Israelis are reconciled to a Palestinian state, though only in the context of a deal that guarantees them real security. And most accept - unenthusiastically - that Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria would have to be uprooted were the Palestinians prepared for peace. But they are not.

PEACE NOW spokesman Yariv Oppenheimer says vaguely that he supports whatever Israeli and Palestinian negotiators can agree upon. But in practice, Peace Now is demanding something different and specific. While claiming it does not want to push Israel back to the indefensible 1949 Armistice Lines, Peace Now nonetheless opposes any construction over the Green Line. It does not support the retention of major settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion, Ma'aleh Adumim and Ariel; it considers east Talpiot, Gilo and Pisgat Ze'ev "occupied territory."

Peace Now also stands squarely outside the consensus by favoring "joint sovereignty" over Jerusalem's Old City. And while it opposes the "implementation" of the Palestinian "right of return," it does not necessarily oppose its affirmation.

Moreover, for a group with so much media clout, Peace Now shows an appalling lack of financial transparency and administrative accountability. Israelis are asked to believe that a finely-tuned machine capable of running airborne surveillance over every nook and cranny of the West Bank operates quite informally, by consensus, under the auspices of university students and aging hippies.

Peace Now is actually funded through an educational NGO called Sha'al, which receives "most" of its funds from American Jews, according to Oppenheimer. But he declines to say what his annual budget is, or how much cash comes from foreign governments and foundations who might be interested in co-opting the Peace Now brand.

Peace Now helps remind us that Jewish civilization attaches the highest value to peace. Yet by remaining ideologically stagnant, holding to positions that experience has shown risk rendering Israel indefensible, and keeping its decision-making methods and funding sources mystifying, the organization places itself on the periphery of Israel's body politic.

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