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Sharon Policies Revive Israel's Left

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When Ariel Sharon swept to a landslide victory in last February's general election with the promise to restore Israelis' security, the voices of the country's peace camp fell silent.

But a year after the former general became prime minister, and 16 months into a bloody Palestinian uprising, Israelis are feeling even less secure and those who favor a peace settlement are becoming increasingly displeased with their current government.

"The peace camp...is waking up," said former Labor government minister Yossi Beilin, an architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. "It is clear to all that Sharon and the right have nothing to offer but more bloodshed."

Peace Now, a movement which used to draw hundreds of thousands of leftists to the streets but recently has been hard pressed to muster more than a few dozen at a time, is rolling out its first big protest campaign since Sharon took office.

Parliamentary speaker Avraham Burg, a dovish leader of the center-left Labor Party, says he will accept an invitation to address the Palestinian legislature despite Sharon's efforts to isolate Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Sharon has been further rattled by dissent within Israel's most revered institution, the army. At least 200 reservists have signed a petition refusing to serve in the occupied territories, a move which the army's chief of staff has said could be treated as incitement to rebellion.

But while the silence of the doves seems to be ending, peace activists still face an uphill battle to win back Israelis shaken by a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. Many on the left already felt betrayed by Arafat's rejection of Barak's offer of a state on more than 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, and sovereignty over parts of Arab East Jerusalem.

Palestinians said it would have relegated their state to an inferior status, subject to unilateral Israeli security controls. They deny Arafat has turned his back on peace and blame Barak, and now Sharon, for the failure to reach a peace agreement.

The once-dominant Labor Party, Israel's traditional standard-bearer for peacemaking, has sunk to the lowest point in its history. It could be years before it can challenge Sharon's right-wing Likud party.

After voters unnerved by the Palestinian uprising voted incumbent Ehud Barak out of office on February 6, 2001, Labor joined Sharon's national unity government. The party now finds itself bitterly divided over whether to continue its support for Sharon, a harline leader who this week in the United States is urging President Bush to ignore Yasser Arafat as "irrelevant."

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a Labor leader who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace prize with Arafat for the Oslo accords, sees his party's presence in the coalition as a way to moderate Sharon's policies. Beilin, who now sits to Peres's left along the political spectrum, now says his party's affiliation with Sharon erves as a political "fig leaf" for a military campaign.

After two decades advocating a negotiated settlement based on Oslo's land-for-peace formula, Peace Now wants an immediate withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the most isolated West Bank settlements, leading eventually to a complete withdrawal.

The slogan of the campaign of rallies, marches and posters being launched this week by Peace Now and a coalition of leftist groups is: "Leave the territories, return to ourselves."

Other leaders, on the left as well as the right, are prepared to go even further. They propose total disengagement from the Palestinians, complete with walls and razor wire.

"The idea is to create a defensible border so terrorists can't enter Israel and the Palestinians will be emancipated from checkpoints and closures," said Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist and former top Labor government official.

Palestinian moderates dismiss any separation that would keep much of the West Bank under occupation as unrealistic, but they welcome signs of revival in the Israeli peace camp and have joined in activities aimed at restoring trust.

"Sharon is strong because he has no viable opposition," said Palestinian political analyst Ghassan al-Khatib. "That creates a dangerous dynamic that needs to be countered."

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