Mission Accomplished?: Israel's "Four Mothers" and the Legacies of Successful Antiwar Movements

Article excerpt

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.

--Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

Introduction

Four Mothers--Leaving Lebanon in Peace, according to journalistic and academic sources, was a remarkably successful antiwar movement--"probably the most influential protest movement in the history of Israel," according to one observer (Shavit, 2006; see also Frucht, 2000; Sebag, 2002; Hermann, 2006; and Sela, 2007). Between 1997 and 2000, movement activists helped turn Israeli public opinion against a counterinsurgency war that Israel had been fighting in Lebanon since 1982. The group, which was the only national grassroots movement active against the war at the time, was founded by the parents of soldiers assigned to combat in Lebanon, most of them residents of collective kibbutz communities in the Galilee region in Israel's North, along the Lebanon border.

The Four Mothers name adopted the image of the Biblical matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. Movement leaders, including this article's first co-author, used both religious and secular nationalist imagery to appeal to Jewish Israeli public opinion, which, in the course of the Four Mothers protest, shifted from less than 35 percent in favor of unilaterally ending Israel's military presence in Lebanon to more than 70 percent in favor (Arian 1997, 1999a, 1999b).

This opinion shift was attributable not only to the movement's demonstrations, lobbying, petitions, and media and public education campaigns: Increasing Israeli casualties in Lebanon, some dramatic military disasters, and the government and military's inability to articulate attainable goals and strategies for the war were also important factors. However, as the Four Mothers protest expanded into a national movement, it managed to garner considerable media and public attention to its message: that Israel's 16-year-long war in southern Lebanon had failed to protect the northern communities--the war's ostensible purpose at that stage--and had pointlessly endangered two generations of Israeli soldiers as well. As one of the movement's slogans put it, "Our husbands were fighting this war when our boys were still babies. We don't want our grandsons to still be fighting it" (Ben Dor). In 1999, in the context of national elections and antiwar trends in public opinion, Labor party leader Ehud Barak pledged to withdraw the army, if he were elected prime minister. Barak was elected prime minister and then in May 2000 ordered the soldiers' return to Israel. Four Mothers--Leaving Lebanon in Peace, as an ad hoc movement focused on ending Israel's military involvement in Lebanon, voted to dissolve itself soon afterward.

Despite widespread support for ending the war in the lead-up to the withdrawal and afterwards, and despite considerable esteem for the movement's accomplishments, even from right-wing nationalists who opposed its goals, the legacy of the Four Mothers movement, within several years, became sharply contested among the Israeli public. When war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah organization broke out in July 2006--after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers near the border, and following the abduction of another Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip by the Palestinian Hamas organization--Israeli nationalists blamed the Four Mothers movement for having caused the war. This attribution was based on the proposition that, had the movement not caused the army's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, its ongoing presence there could have prevented Hezbollah's carrying out cross-border raids and acquiring the rockets that it fired into Israel in 2006.

The Four Mothers movement was also blamed for undermining the morale of the army and for making Israeli society less able to tolerate military casualties in war, for weakening the military's deterrent capabilities, and for inviting attacks by emboldened adversaries. Thus, Israeli withdrawal in 2000 was an act of appeasement that encouraged not only Hezbollah aggression, but also attacks on Israelis by Palestinian militants within the West Bank and Gaza in the intifada (uprising) beginning in late 2000. …