Peace leader: Most Israelis want peace

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Most Israelis want a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and the Bush administration’s policies are “very unhelpful,” Galia Golan, a leader of Peace Now, Israel’s oldest and largest mass peace movement, told the World.

Golan, along with Shulamit Aloni, a member of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet, and Ziad Abu Ziad, a member of the Palestine Legislative Council, participated in the World Social Forum here Jan. 23-28, speaking at a series of panels on the Israel-Palestine situation.

In an interview with the World, Golan, a professor of political science in Jerusalem, said polls show “a vast majority of Israelis agree with the idea of a two-state solution, a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel, and the vast majority are willing to see a withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, the dismantling of most or all of the settlements.”

Peace Now was founded in 1978 by 350 reserve officers and soldiers from combat units in the army. “It’s really quite unusual and significant: a peace movement founded by mainly young people who were in fighting units in the army,” Golan said. “I think one of the reasons it became a mass movement is that it came out of the center of Israeli society with young people who said they are willing to fight for the country but they must believe that the government is doing everything possible to reach peace. It grew into a movement of hundreds of thousands of people.”

“Today the vast majority of Israelis, whether they identify with Peace Now or not, do accept our positions. While we have not succeeded in bringing about peace, and we have not succeeded in bringing about a government that is willing to make peace, I think we have played a large role in changing attitudes within the country.”

The Bush administration’s strong support of the hard-line militarism of Ariel Sharon’s government has been a very serious problem for Israel, Golan declared. “Clinton didn’t do everything right perhaps, but he certainly was engaged and put forth ideas that I think were extremely helpful. The disaster for us is that the U.S. is really the only country that has influence over the Israeli government or the public, and the Bush administration has taken a very very firm position in support of Sharon’s policies, even to the point of supporting Sharon’s refusal to negotiate, Sharon’s refusal to meet with Arafat or to even acknowledge Arafat. I think this has been extremely harmful for us.”

Nevertheless, Golan told the World she is confident there will be a return to the peace process. “The reason I’m confident is that the public has come a long way and is willing today to compromise, does want to see an end to the occupation and an end to the bloodshed. And I think that we have the same thing on the Palestinian side. There is a majority on both sides that wants to see an end to this situation.”

A major problem for the Israeli peace movement, said Golan, is that it is identified with the European-born middle class elite and “we have had very great difficulty in breaking this image.” In addition, she said, the fundamentalist orthodox Jewish parties have directed their right-wing ultra-nationalist appeal to workers, playing on class divisions. Although there are movements for rights and ethnic pride among the oriental (eastern) Jews, who in addition to Israeli Arabs are the preponderant group in the working class, she said they tend to be allied with the ultra-orthodox and support the extremist right-wing government.

“One of the major things we have been trying to do is to demonstrate to people that the terrible rise in unemployment and severe hardship we have today inside Israel – where we have enormous numbers of people living below the poverty line and are now reaching 11 percent unemployment – there is a connection between this and the absence of peace, a connection between this and our absence of security and the monies going into the settlements and protecting the settlers.”

At the moment the biggest problem in Israeli society in general, said Golan, is that as a result of terrorism there has been a shift in sentiment, “on the one hand being in favor of compromise – a two-state solution – and on the other hand saying ‘there’s no one to talk to, all they want to do is throw us into the sea’. So these are the contradictions with which we have to deal.”

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.