News of a ceasefire has come as a relief to us on the Israeli left, who have always argued that armed conflict is not the answer. The latest violence in the south of Israel and the Gaza Strip felt to many of us like the resurgence of a malignant condition. Just as with previous eruptions it could only cause more destruction, bloodshed and despair to both parties, unless stopped promptly, giving wayto a long-term ceasefire agreement. It is still not clear if that is what we have, so our relief is tinged with apprehension. But there are lessons to draw from our experience of protesting against the violence.
As the fighting began, conversations with friends confirmed that we shared the same baleful feeling of the country dashing headlong into a useless, bloody quagmire. We hastened to put our feelings into words in a petition, stating: "The duty of the government is to protect the life of the citizens, but it has chosen the wrong way to do it. Quiet and calm were always the result of dialogue and agreement."
More than a hundred intellectuals, writers, choreographers, pop stars, film-makers, poets, journalists, actors, university professors and artists signed this petition. The purpose was to make clear that there was no consensus that this war was inevitable, and thereby to trigger a change of mind that would help the government opt for a negotiated agreement with Hamas.
A poll by Israel's Channel 2, conducted just after the agreement, suggests a majority of public opinion is against the ceasefire. But, perhaps surprisingly, the signatories of the anti-war petition were not, in contrast to the past, stigmatised as traitors. I was invited to participate in a TV panel alongside the editor of the settlers' newspaper. I expected incendiary rhetoric to come from my opponent, but the tone was rather subdued and dispassionate. I had the impression that our petition and the echo it raised somehow helped to sober public opinion. I wonder if it helped our leaders to come down from the tree that they had climbed in the first days of the war.
It reminded me of an experience I had when I was artistic co-director of the Haifa Municipal Theatre. We produced my play, The Palestinian Girl. The year was 1985, and the very term "Palestinian" was still taboo in Israel. Some patrons returned their seasonal subscription in protest against the play's title. A Haifa rabbi went so far as to remove the mezuza, the Hebrew prayer traditionally affixed to front doors, from the theatre's entrance. Nevertheless, the play was a huge success. Eight years later Yitzhak Rabin shook Yasser Arafat's hand on the lawn of the White House.
I don't pretend that theatre can change political reality, but it can certainly contribute to the development of public discourse, if only by putting a forbidden word on posters. In 1985 the radical Israeli left was not much stronger than it is now. The experience with The Palestinian Girl made me think that its role in a democratic society was to subvert fossilised political attitudes by employing viral actions to introduce changes in the public discourse.
Despite the Channel 2 poll, it is too early to determine the effect of the ceasefire on public opinion. The Israeli left's task now is to question why our government did not work out a better agreement with Hamas after it bartered 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalit a year ago. This may also be an opportunity for the left in Europe to encourage friendly parties in the Arab world to use the current momentum to promote a comprehensive peace. The peculiar political conjunction could offer an elusive chance during a convulsive period in the history of the Middle East.