Inside Story

Peace activists in a traumatized Israel remain hopeful for a two-state solution

Advocates and left-wing politicians are committed to a long-term diplomatic solution with Palestinians, although general support for a two-state solution dips in October 7 aftermath

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Family and friends attend a memorial service for peace activist and Women Wage Peace founder Vivian Silver at Kibbutz Gezer, November 16, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)
Family and friends attend a memorial service for peace activist and Women Wage Peace founder Vivian Silver at Kibbutz Gezer, November 16, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Among the soul-searching Israelis have done in the two months since Hamas punctured the image the government held of it as a rational actor interested in stability in Gaza, voices have emerged from within the dovish left-wing peace camp debating its own ideological missteps.

Popularly referred to the “failed concept” in Israeli discourse, the idea that Hamas could be placated has been resoundingly rejected by the hard-right government, which had clung to that guiding principle right up to the first moments of the terror group’s October 7 shock attack, in which its fighters killed 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians, and dragged some 240 to the Gaza Strip as hostages.

Parallel to this, some on the left have also questioned what false assumptions they held about Gaza and Hamas. Ravit Hecht, a writer for the liberal Hebrew daily Haaretz who self-identifies with Israel’s left-wing and peace movements, wrote shortly after the massacre that the left’s own “conceptions collapsed.”

“The element that was broken most among many peace activists is more worldview than declarative ideology, more of a worldview about human nature,” said Tel Aviv University political scientist Uriel Abulof.

What shattered was “the belief that humans are either good or essentially good. And that by making certain efforts,” such as person-to-person bridge building, or public activism, “you can actually make a change,” he said.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, peace activists, many of whom have spent decades attempting to tear down perceptions of Palestinians as violent and uninterested in coexistence, were thrust into the same deep trauma and revulsion as the rest of the country.

Left-wing activists marching toward Homesh, July 7, 2023, holding a sign reading ‘Until Homesh is dismantled’ in Hebrew and Arabic. (Courtesy Peace Now)

“The first reactions that the peace movement had were exactly the same reactions that the entire Israeli society had, which were grief, shock, fear, and anxiety,” said Lior Amichai, head of Peace Now, a leading group pushing to end Israel’s hold on the West Bank. “People are just devastated.”

However, Amichai said he is “hopeful” the current cataclysm triggered by October 7 and Israel’s ensuing war with Hamas may shift things in public discourse and even restart progress toward a two-state solution, the internationally popular but generally languishing idea of the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.

Furthermore, if Israel succeeds in its war goal of dislodging Hamas, its successor regime in Gaza might be amenable to joining a peace process, which Hamas has eschewed.

“Our vision for this place is re-strengthened,” the Peace Now leader said, although he acknowledged that “big question marks” remain about how to create a two-state reality.

“I am hopeful because the 7th of October feels like a moment that would change things,” breaking the “no urgency” status quo that Israel had sunk into since the 2014 breakdown of the last American-led peace talks, he said.

The cruel irony of Hamas’s onslaught, which alongside the scale of bloodshed, shocked Israelis with the barbarity of the terror group’s torture and documented sexual abuse, was that many of the civilians Hamas slaughtered and kidnapped were precisely the loudest voices for peace with Palestinians.

Among them was Vivian Silver, a founder of Women Wage Peace who routinely drove Gazans from the border to their medical appointments within Israel. Silver was killed in her hometown of Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the hardest-hit communities and also one of the best-known for peace activism. Nir Oz, another devastated kibbutz, was home to several fellow peace activists, including kidnapped octogenarian couple Yocheved and Oded Lifshitz. While Yocheved was released from captivity in late October, her husband remains a hostage in Gaza.

A person holds a poster of Vivian Silver, top center, as medical staff and health professionals attend a demonstration in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in London on Nov. 9, 2023, calling for an immediate intervention in the case of the hostages kidnapped from Israel on Oct. 7. (AP/Kin Cheung)

Yet, Amichai is backed by other activists in Israel’s small but persisting active peace movement, as well as politicians in the country’s shrinking political left. Many of them say that the peace movement along with the mainstream political left are “confused” about how to progress but are clear on their continued commitment to the ultimate outcome of two states for two peoples.

“People understand that even if you must have a two-state solution, there are still many places of confusion and people just don’t understand how” it will come about, Amichai said.

The idea that Hamas’s atrocities could end up setting in motion a revitalized peace push is far from a fringe sentiment, even if the path ahead remains unclear.

“It’s become clearer and clearer that something needs to be done after the war is over. We cannot go back to square one,” said political scientist Tamar Hermann of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the current government is not well-poised to take this initiative. Netanyahu sits atop a hardline coalition, including members of his own Likud party and two far-right parties avowedly against losing Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to plant a tree during an event on the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat, in the Jewish settlement of Mevo’ot Yericho, in the West Bank near the city of Jericho, February 10, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

Netanyahu has himself recently reassured Likud lawmakers that he can prevent the formation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. The longtime leader has long been accused of seeking to “manage the conflict” rather than solve it, including by propping up Hamas with foreign money and quality of life improvements for Gaza, so that it would serve as a bulwark against the Palestinian Authority and a future possibility for Palestinian statehood.

This policy is now being blamed by both his right and left flanks for permitting Hamas to fortify itself to the point where October 7 burst into reality.

According to Merav Michaeli, head of the left’s flagship Labor party, the attacks proved the need for an alternate vision, one long pushed by Israel’s political doves.

“Not only has the concept of a political solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not failed, it is now more clear that it is the only option,” she said.

Labor party head Merav Michaeli visits families of Israelis held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, during a protest outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, October 14, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

But in a sign of the disarray plaguing the left, Michaeli announced Thursday that she would step down as party head, a year after being blamed for the party’s weak showing at the polls and the failure of fellow left-wing party Meretz to earn a place in the Knesset.

In decline since the collapse of the Oslo peace process over two decades ago, the political left has largely tied its fate to the pragmatic center, which may be less gung-ho in its support for Palestinian statehood following the attacks.

“I believe that people are more worried, even about the possibility of pragmatic solutions, that’s for sure,” said Hebrew University of Jerusalem political scientist Gideon Rahat.

Still reeling from the trauma of October 7, some Israelis have retreated from support for a two-state solution. A poll conducted three weeks after the attacks found 28.6% of Jewish Israelis in favor of a two-state solution, down from 37.5% a month earlier, according to Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index poll.

At the same time, only 8.5% of Jewish Israelis backed a fully democratic, one-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. No separate question was asked about preference for the current status quo.

The same poll found only 24.5% of Jewish Israelis in favor of peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in the West Bank city Ramallah, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP)

Despite the raw emotions and political momentum for a more hawkish stance toward the Palestinians, both scholars and activists note that great upheaval can sometimes lead to unexpected results.

“We compare 2023 to 1973 a lot,” Abulof said, referring to Egypt and Syria’s coordinated invasion that kicked off the 1973 Yom Kippur War, 50 years earlier.

“But people somewhat tend to forget that four years later we had [peacemaking Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat visiting Jerusalem,” Abulof added.

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