What is the Israeli peace camp? An interview with Samy Cohen

Doves Among Hawks - Samy Cohen - Hurst

The English translation of Samy Cohen’s book on the peace camp in Israel has just been released. The book is the result of several years of field work and historical analysis of the Israeli peace camp. Doves Among Hawks. Struggles of the Israeli Peace Movements is published jointly by Hurst Publishers and Oxford University Press. What is the Israeli peace camp? Why has it been marginalized? Emeritus Professor Samy Cohen answers our questions on the topic.


What does the peace camp represent in Israel?

The Israeli peace camp represents a loosely-structured group that can be organized into four clusters.

The first includes organizations that do top-down peace-building and are trying to come up with a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Geneva Initiative, for example, lead a major reflexive effort with the Palestinians, which produced a comprehensive and detailed peace plan. Council for Peace and Security and Commanders for Israel’s Security, two organizations in which former army commanders, Shin Beth and police members take part, is another representative of this first trend. Peace Now is an interesting example because it is part of this trend, but not entirely. One of Peace Now’s objectives is to mobilize masses and to find political solutions to the conflict as well as very concrete interventions (Observatory of colonies for example) and reports.

The second cluster gathers all those who do bottom-up reconciliation and who engage in dialogue with Palestinians who believe as they do, that it is time to stop the violence. Two major organizations represent this trend: the Parents Circle-Families Forum (Israelis and Palestinians) and Combatants for Peace. The Forum was created by an Israeli man whose son died because of the conflict. Today several hundred Israeli and Palestinian families are working together for the establishment of two separate states. Combatants for Peace gathers young reservists and previous conscientious objectors who are trying to build something concrete out of their refusal to take up arms, together with former members of Tanzim (one of Fatah’s armed factions). Together, they advocate the end of the conflict and the laying down of arms.

The third cluster is embodied by Human Rights NGOs whose activism carries an implicit peace message. It brings together various professionals (lawyers, doctors, rabbis) who help Palestinians whose fundamental rights are violated. Although well established, this trend is the least accepted in Israel—even by pacifists—because it concerns very sensitive issues and it is accused of giving Israel and its army a poor image, something even the most moderate Israelis do not abide. The NGOs in this strand are often criticized by the right, giving them considerable publicity.

The fourth trend gathers “free agents”: writers, musicians, academics, journalists, ordinary citizens. There are as many actions as people who are part of this tendency. Some help Palestinians get to an Israeli hospital, help their families, some others bring toys to sick children at hospital whose parents are not allowed to come. Others, sometimes famous figures, such as Boma Inbar, help young Palestinians go to the beach or play football with young Israelis.


Do these trends meld in any way?

These four movements do not form a homogeneous camp as they also seek to distinguish themselves from one another. Ideological factors partly explain these divisions. Even if they all tend toward peace, the path they chose varies. Some feel it is not advisable to tackle overly sensitive issues such as the 1948 war, whereas others believe it is indispensable. Some claim to be apolitical and try not to be associated with leftist movements when they criticize the government. Others, on the contrary, do not hesitate to target the Prime Minister and the governmental coalition because they consider them responsible for the status quo.


When did the peace movement emerge? Was it in 1967?

1967 is indeed a key year, even if movements for peace existed prior to that. The occupation of conquered territories during the Six-Day War caused a split. Two trends emerged: one, which believes that the victory is a divine sign and that Israel should seize the opportunity to return to the land of its ancestors. This trend would give birth to the Movement for Greater Israel, and then Gush Emunim, a small group of religious extremists.

The second trend that emerged following the Six-Day War considers that the integrity of territories should be preserved. A small group of men who were neither dangerous leftists nor dreamers—Arie (Lova) Eliav, vice-minister of Industry, General Matti Peled, Colonel Meir Païl, the journalist Uri Avnery—championed this idea as of June 1967. Lova Eliav resigned from the government to start an investigation in the refugee camps. He came back with a report in which he claimed there was an emerging Palestinian nation that Israel should help develop into a state. Eliav faced opposition by all the Labor Party bigwigs, as well as Golda Meir who refuted the idea of a Palestinian people. In June 1967, Adjunct Director of Mossad David Kimche secretly gave the Prime Minister a report in which he followed Lova Eliav’s conclusions. This small avant-garde had understood that a Palestinian state was necessary a quarter-century before Oslo. These were not isolated actions and turned into a trend that extended to Labor, academia, and culture. The two trends, the hawks and the doves, the positions of which are irreconcilable, will never cease to mutually reinforce each other and yet go to increasingly opposite directions.


In your book you often refer to fear and the increasing Israeli people’s lack of trust in Palestinians…

The decline and failure of the peace camp has often been explained through sociological reasons: the massive arrival of Russian Jews, the increase in religious beliefs… The main reasons are psychological, however: fear and distrust toward Palestinians. To understand this, we have to go back to the Oslo process, which had generated much hope among many people who believed the conflict would end. Most Israelis had mixed feelings, between a desire for peace and suspicion of Palestinians. Sadat had managed to calm fears by coming to Knesset to discuss peace in November 1977. Arafat and the PLO, however, have always been seen as diehard enemies and they inspired neither respect nor trust. Attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad added to the distrust. More than half the Israeli population supported Rabin despite the attacks, but even more Israelis believed that Palestinians would not renounce their intention to destroy the state of Israel if they had the means to. This opinion is a major explanation to Israelis’ attitude toward the conflict.

When Ehud Barak was appointed Prime Minister in 1999, many Israelis saw him as the man who would keep his promises and make peace with Syria and the Palestinians. The Camp David talks between Barak and Arafat ended in failure, but both men continued to negotiate in Taba and almost reached complete agreement on the refugee issue and the final status of Jerusalem. But it was too late. Barak was beaten by Sharon in the 2001 elections. This was during the second Intifada: Hamas perpetrated several suicide bombings and the period was marked by extreme violence. There were a thousand deaths on the Israeli side—almost all Israeli families were affected directly or indirectly—and many died on the Palestinian side as well. This was huge step backward compared to the Oslo period.


And then the very idea of peace in exchange for territories was a failure…

The core idea of the peace camp and Israeli leftist parties is that security can only come from peace and that to make peace, Israel needs to give back the territories. At the opposite, rightist parties insist on the fact that each of Israel’s withdrawals has increased insecurity without bringing peace. They cite the example of the first withdrawal from the West Bank by Rabin, which was not followed by peace. Quite the contrary, Hamas and Islamic jihad perpetrated attacks in the heart of Israeli cities. Barak took the Israeli forces out of South Lebanon, and Hezbollah pursued an aggressive policy toward Israel. In 2005, Sharon disengaged from Gaza without leading to any improvement in the situation. For the Israeli right, the left is “irresponsible,” it “lies” when it claims that withdrawals can bring peace. This story is questionable, to say the least, because the withdrawals were either unilateral or not followed by a peace treaty. Peace has in fact never been put to the test.

Additionally, the argument according to which withdrawals cause more insecurity remains to be proven. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an inquiry on the Gaza Strip in 2014, in which it counted the number of deaths before and after disengagement. The journal found that there were more deaths during the years preceding the disengagement from the Gaza Strip than during the two years that followed. The reason is simple: when the IDF occupied the Gaza Strip, the military and the settlers in this territory were systematically attacked by Hamas, and there were many victims. After the disengagement there were way fewer casualties, but the peace camp was unable to defend the idea that the disengagement had indeed been useful. The peace camp never created politico-strategic reflection structures to discuss security issues. Peace activists focused too much on peace and not enough on security, yet security is a priority for Israelis. Peace is of interest but only if it brings security.


You mention the peace camp is marginalized … why so?

The second intifada and the second Lebanon war, the abduction of caporal Shalit in June 2006, and the continuing rocket fire from the Gaza Strip all contributed to the feeling that Israel showed willingness but was not paid in return and that finally, peace was not the solution. When Sharon arrived in power in 2001, he fought with great determination against terrorism (operation Defensive Shield in March 2002), which he managed to reduce. People say that the right succeeded, whereas the left failed and the peace camp only deceived public opinion by claiming that peace was possible by a withdrawal from the territories. Rightist politics appeared more efficient security-wise.

Left-wing parties have suffered a major decline in the polls since Rabin’s assassination. The leftist doves are rather isolated and have few political representatives today, which was different at the time of Rabin and Peres when the Labor Party (and Meretz) were its political spokesmen. Kadima, founded by Sharon, became the voice of moderates who believe that a solution to the conflict is necessary and possible. Labor leaders (Shelly Yachimovich and more recently Yitzhak Herzog and Avi Gabai) have never really put the Palestinian issue, nor that of peace, on their political agenda. They know that if they want to return to power they need to win votes on the right and center right, and for this type of elector peace is not a priority. As a consequence, no one in Israel wears the colors of the peace camp, except the little Meretz party, which has fewer than six members in the Knesset.

Many Israelis do not believe in the left’s promises anymore, but they still believe that a Palestinian state should exist. The two-state perspective, which would have been unacceptable two decades ago, comes from Rabin, Peres and the peace camp. Additionally, some former hawks from Likud, as Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, who were close to Ariel Sharon, have adopted a language close to that of the left. Sharon himself even declared in May 2003 to astounded deputies of his own party that Israel could no longer occupy another people’s land—an expression that belongs to the peace camp, not right-wing political representatives.


Is Israeli society moving to the right?

This idea should be put into perspective. It all depends on what we look at. The electoral dimension? Party self-identification? Ideological affinities? If we look at votes, there is a clear shift away from left-wing parties: between 1995 and 2009, the Labor Party and the Meretz lost 20 points during elections. This drop benefited center parties rather than the right (Likud), which gained only 3 points during the same period. Additionally, only one- third of Israelis place themselves on the political right, while 8 to 12% on the left and 55% at the center—which could fall toward either side. The shift to the right has become evident in terms of ideology, however, since rightist values (security and colonization) have become predominant.


Why is the peace camp disturbing?

The peace camp is disturbing in Israel—and beyond—for all those who do not like the human and positive image that it gives of Israel and because it shows that there are Palestinians who want peace whereas they are always presented as enemies. The peace camp disrupts the homogeneity of representations, it disrupts the antagonism between “us” and “them,” the very political identification principle examined by Carl Schmitt.


Doves Among Hawks. Struggles of the Israeli Peace Movements is published by Hurst and Oxford University Press. It is the English translation of Israel et ses colombes, published by Gallimard. Translation by Cynthia Schoch.

Interview by Corinne Deloy and Miriam Périer, CERI.

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