Tel Aviv — Boaz Levy couldn’t recall the last time he had been to a peace rally.
As demonstrators filed past the street bench where he rested after a 120,000-strong demonstration Saturday night supporting a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Levy explained that the dejection from three and a half years of daily violence stifled any motivation to speak out.
But when 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in Gaza less than a fortnight after 60,000 Likud voters rejected a unilateral withdrawal from settlements there, it sparked the outrage of Israeli doves like the 23-year old Hebrew University student.
“There’s been a feeling of frustration, but we didn’t know how to make an impact,” he said. “We feel that since the beginning of the intifada there’s been a deterioration. But to sit at home and complain won’t get us anywhere.”
Amid the national soul-searching last week over Israel’s continued presence in Gaza, Israeli leftists realized that for the first time since being discredited by the collapse of the Camp David peace talks four years ago, the national consensus had shifted in their direction.
“Of course we’re witnessing a renewal of the Israeli left,” said Musi Raz, a leader of Peace Now. “The die has been cast. Israel will leave Gaza. The question now is how much time it will take.”
Opinion polls over the last week have suggested that support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement initiative remains robust among the Israeli public. Some two-thirds of Israelis support a plan that the prime minister adapted from the failed parliamentary campaign of discredited Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, who went down to a crushing defeat advocating leaving Gaza.
But it is far less clear whether Israel’s doves will be able to transform the momentary resuscitation of legitimacy into lasting political support that will sweep them back into power. The blemish of the failed Oslo process and the blame for the outbreak of the intifada has been an albatross for Israeli peaceniks, and there’s no indication that they will be able to make it go away.
Even Raz conceded it would be premature to declare a comeback. Most of the public is still unsure about restarting negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Similarly, the notion of a full withdrawal from the West Bank supported by Peace Now doesn’t win the same overwhelming support among Israelis that a Gaza pullback commands.
And some on the left conceded that it is unclear whether restarting peace talks would produce a settlement.
“Even I agree with the fact that if Yossi Beilin were the prime minister then tomorrow peace wouldn’t break out,” he said.
As the speakers last Saturday night gazed out onto the crowds gathered on Rabin Square, they declared the rally the biggest demonstration since hundreds of thousands of outraged Israelis converged on the square in 1982 during the Lebanon War. At the time, revelations of Israel’s responsibility for the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp stoked calls for the resignation of then-defense minister Ariel Sharon.
Now, irritation over the failure of Prime Minister Sharon’s party to back a Gaza withdrawal has revived the anti-government protest spirit among the left. Only now, the peace camp finds itself in the awkward position of being aligned with a political figure that it has traditionally considered an enemy.
“Sharon says, I can’t leave Gaza because of the Likud rank-and-file members,” said Tsali Reshef, a Peace Now founder. “But we are saying to Sharon, ‘You can! You can leave Gaza!’ ”
Using the slogan, “Leaving Gaza, starting to talk,” as a backdrop to the stage, the coalition of peace groups sponsoring the rally included Peace Now, the Labor Party, the newly formed Social Democratic party, Yachad, and the Geneva Initiative backers.
The demonstration was so dominated by left-wing stalwarts that disengagement supporters from the Likud like Ehud Olmert dared not to show up and Sharon’s centrist coalition partner Shinui stayed at home — another sign of the continuing isolation of the peace camp.
The sometimes conflicting message of the speakers highlighted how the left is in some respects still in search of a coherent response to the crisis of the intifada.
Former Shin Bet Chief Ami Ayalon opened the rally by arguing that the demonstrators on the square didn’t represent the Israeli majority and reproaching the peace camp for failing to speak to the hearts of the average Israelis. But Shimon Peres begged to differ.
“This isn’t a rally of the left. It’s a rally of the majority,” he said. “We carry the hopes of 5 million Israelis against the 60,000 Likud voters.”