Israel's largest peace group marked what it called a bittersweet milestone Tuesday, 30 years since its foundation. Peace Now's call for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel has largely been embraced by the Israeli mainstream, but peace itself remains painfully elusive, representatives of the movement said.
For the anniversary, the group pitched a large white tent in Tel Aviv's central square, site of Israel's largest peace rallies, but also the spot where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down in 1995 by an ultranationalist zealot trying to sabotage Rabin's attempt to trade land for peace with the Palestinians.
In a side tent, an exhibition of posters documented Peace Now's history, from its founding in 1978 by several hundred army reserve officers, to the present.
Reviewing the display, Peace Now veteran Yair Inov, 81, recognized himself in a photograph from the 1980s, showing a few activists protesting at the site of a new West Bank settlement.
"To a certain extent, it's a sad day," Inov said. "I cannot call this (the past 30 years) a success. A peace agreement with the Palestinians, that's the key."
"Our main message is that those who really want to make peace in a year need to change their mode of operations dramatically," said Meretz MK Yossi Beilin. "If the behavior remains what it is today ... you cannot reach an agreement this year," he added.
When Peace Now was founded, negotiations with the PLO and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel were still considered radical ideas by many Israelis. In subsequent decades, the country remained bitterly divided among those ready to give up much of the land captured in 1967 and those who were not.
However, the Israeli consensus has shifted in recent years, and polls suggest a majority of Israelis would be willing to reach a land-for-peace deal.
However, many Israelis also doubt the Palestinians could implement an agreement, in part because of the growing influence of the Islamic militant movement Hamas, which seeks Israel's destruction.
Peace Now leader Yariv Oppenheimer noted that Israeli settlement expansion has continued without letup in the past three decades, some 450,000 Israelis now live on war-won land claimed by the Palestinians, and that it will become increasingly difficult to set up a Palestinian state.
"We had some achievements, and the settlers had a lot of achievements as well," he said. "But without Peace Now, I think the West Bank would look even worse than it looks today."
A Peace Now-led protest in the fall of 1982 against a massacre of Palestinian civilians by an Israeli-allied militia in Lebanon drew what was described at the time as Israel's largest-ever demonstration.
In later years, Peace Now monitored Jewish settlement expansion, issuing frequent reports.
"Peace Now wants to give the historic Jewish homeland away to the enemy, and that makes them back stabbing traitors," one settler attending the rally said. "The outcome (of returning settled land) is not peace now, it is war now, it is a war of terror and a much bigger war of terror than ever before," another settler representative added.
Former Palestinian Cabinet minister Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, who frequently appears on Israeli radio and TV shows, attended Tuesday's gathering and expressed agreement that attitudes have changed in the past 30 years. "Unfortunately, the problems are still the same problems," he said.
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