Israels lethargic peace movement comes to life again

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JERUSALEM — On the day before Yom Kippur, while some Israelis were crowding supermarkets for last-minute shopping, others were gathered outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's house for a last-minute plea before the start of the Day of Atonement.

"We don't want another Yom Kippur; we don't want another war," chanted the crowd, referring to the 1973 surprise attack by Arab countries on Yom Kippur. "Give us peace, not war. Give us security, not an insecure peace."

Amid the burning candles and the sound of trumpets blaring, a bearded man holding a placard imprinted with a call for peace stopped a woman handing out stickers for Peace Now, Israel's leading dovish group.

"Don't I know you from somewhere?" he asked.

"We met a few weeks ago at the Ras al-Amud protest," she replied, handing him a sticker.

Peace activists are starting to fight back, two years after Israel's peace movement was demoralized by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of an extremist Jew opposed to giving land to Palestinians and by the subsequent election of Likud leader Netanyahu.

Political analysts say the peace movement in Israel has suffered not just from the Labor loss in the 1996 elections — but also from the victory of Rabin's peace deal with Arafat in 1993.

"They were hit by their successes, when the [Rabin] government adopted their policies and pre-empted their energy," said Yaron Ezrachi, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

"Then they were disorganized after the election of Netanyahu because of their earlier successes," he added.

"It's now beginning to recover, because in the second year of the present administration, there's a sense of a crisis that requires recapturing the old movement for peace," said Ezrachi, author of the recently released "Rubber Bullets," a book about the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

Israeli polls show consistent support for the Oslo accords.

In August, a poll found that 59 percent of the people backed an independent Palestinian state, and 51 percent supported giving the Palestinians some sort of sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem, where the Palestinians want the capital of their future state.

Believing that they can transform the attitudes found in such polls into grass-roots action, Israel's peace activists have been very busy recently.

Finding themselves confronted with a peace process that was stalemated for seven months before the resumption of talks last week, and with a government they believe is moving in the wrong direction, activists have found a new urgency for their cause.

Peace Now activists have been signing up new members by phone. In the days before Yom Kippur, young men and women took up positions across the country, handing out bumper stickers and exhorting Israelis to join the group.

The pre-Yom Kippur demonstration outside Netanyahu's house culminated a month of actions by Peace Now, which last month marked the four-year anniversary of Israel's peace deal with the Palestinians by staging a large Sept. 13 rally in Tel Aviv.

Last month, they set up protest tents in Ras al-Amud, where U.S. businessman Dr. Irving Moskowitz had sparked a political crisis by moving Jewish families into a house he had bought in this predominantly Arab neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem.

"It's been one disaster after another, and it's all going to lead to war," said Galia Golan, a spokeswoman for Peace Now.

"But we've made a decision to keep hitting" at Netanyahu, she said. "People feel that all his policies, taken together, are just leading us further and further away from peace."

The Sept. 13 rally in Tel Aviv was heartily welcomed by many leftist Israelis, who added that it was long overdue.

"There were suicide bombers when we were negotiating, and suicide bombers when we weren't," said David Leshen, a 30-year-old architect who attended the rally.

"I hope Netanyahu will watch this rally and understand that people want negotiations, that there has to be a Palestinian state," he said.

The reassertion of Peace Now — which in the early 1980s was credited with unifying Israeli opposition to the war in Lebanon — has not gone unnoticed.

"The real question is not why suddenly now, but why not before?" journalist Lily Galili wrote last month in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "Something is definitely happening."