Pioneer Peacemakers


November 09, 1993|By HAIM GORDON

BEER SHEVA, ISRAEL — Beer Sheva, Israel.--On the Israeli army plane that took Yitzhak Rabin to Washington to sign the peace accords with the PLO were three widows of Israelis killed by PLO terrorists. Two weeks later, on the plane taking Yasser Arafat to Beijing, to gain Chinese support for the peace accord was Um Jihad, the widow of Abu Jihad, Mr. Arafat's deputy who was killed in Tunis by Israeli commandos.

Evidently, both Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat felt that support from women whose husbands were murdered by the other side would make the peace accords more palatable to some of the skeptics. TC That may be true. But conspicuously lacking in the gala ceremony on the White House lawn and the celebration and euphoria that followed it were representatives of those grass-roots peacemakers who for years struggled to convince both Palestininans and Israelis that the time was ripe for peaceful dialogue, for respect for human rights and for a just solution to the conflict.

Since much of the Western media had ignored the work of these courageous Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, the peace accords seemed more astonishing than they should have. Though they were a psychological breakthrough, the vision of peace and the content of the accords were not new. Not one word uttered by Mr. Rabin or by Mr. Arafat had not been agreed upon and discussed by Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers quite a few years back -- when Mr. Rabin still believed that he would never shake the hand of the chairman of the PLO, and that only an ''iron fist'' would still the Palestinian intifada.

The Israeli Abie Nathan sat in an Israeli jail for months because he shook hands with Yasser Arafat three years ago. Asam El Sartawi was killed by radical Palestinians because he argued a decade ago that the PLO should recognize Israel. The Israeli journalist and former Knesset member, Uri Avneri, and the Palestinian journalist and lawyer, Ziad Abu Zayad, advocated Israeli-Palestinian dialogue years before it was accepted and respectable. It is important, especially now, to listen to these and hundreds of others who actively worked for years for peace.

First, they were visionaries, and what is lacking more than anything today in the Middle East is a viable vision of peace and justice. As the speeches on the White House lawn revealed, peace caught both Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat by surprise. Both are still very much prisoners of their own military pasts. Since signing the accords, neither has suggested any ideas that could bring just and peaceful neighborly relations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Second, the pioneer Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers learned over the years to relate to each other trustfully, as partners in dialogue, not as negotiators trying to strike a deal. This trust, built up during years of search for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in the face of much personal suffering and opposition from friends, colleagues and acquaintances, should not be squandered or ignored. Without such trust, the atmosphere of hatred and animosity that characterizes our area will hardly be changed, even with a negotiated settlement.

Finally, the peacemakers used democratic means and respect for human rights in the struggle for their desired ends. This approach stands in sharp contrast to the many groups of Jewish and Arab fanatics that populate Israel and the Occupied Territories, many of whom are trying by force to annihilate the current movement toward peace.

Put differently, the struggle of these many hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers was an honest struggle, which respected one's opponents even while trying to overcome them through democratic approaches. Such cannot be said, for example, of some of the Palestinian members of the Hamas or the Jewish followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. These peacemakers can serve as an example for democratic political approaches that will benefit the entire Middle East.

''Peace can have many meanings,'' Martin Buber once wrote. ''If it is to have a meaning beyond the halting of hostilities it must be linked to responsibility for the past and a vision of a just future.'' The persons who can today best remind Mr. Rabin and Mr. Arafat of this simple truth are the grass-roots Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers.

Haim Gordon is a scholar at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a member of Peace Now.

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