Mission accomplished?: Israel's "four mothers" and the legacies of successful antiwar movements.

Author:Dor, Rachel Ben

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

--Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom


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.

It is worth noting that even media outlets considered to be relatively dovish took this line, especially in the early days of the war when public opinion sought to strike back in response to the soldiers' kidnapping. In this climate of fear, the approach that the Four Mothers movement had advocated, using non-violent actions to solve the problem, was lost in both public discourse in Israel and in the words of some former activists, which were picked up by the media in support of the pro-war consensus.

However, a government-appointed commission in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon fiasco concluded that the war's negative outcomes for Israel were a result of its political leaders having made "a vague decision without understanding and knowing its nature and implications. They authorized the commencement of a military campaign without considering how to exit it" (Winograd Report, 2007). By re-invading Lebanon in 2006, Israel inadvertently strengthened Hezbollah politically and weakened Israel, its military superiority notwithstanding. Might this outcome have been prevented if leaders of the Four Mothers movement, which was no longer active, had made an effort to revive the movement's messages and remind the public of its contributions to ending Israel's earlier war in Lebanon?

This article raises theoretical and a practical questions concerning the evaluation of antiwar movements' impact or success. On a theoretical level, it explores whether the chief criterion of success should be recognition for an essential role in bringing a war to an end, or if criteria should also include the ability of movement representatives, in the aftermath of their activism, to advocate effectively for the social and political lessons they draw from their protest experience--a concept for which the article uses the term "legacy protection and promotion." Drawing on the experiences of Four Mothers--Leaving Lebanon in Peace, the article asks how veterans of ad hoc antiwar protests, might go about promoting or safeguarding their movements' legacies.

Contesting the Legacies of Successful Antiwar Protests

Claims made by right-wing Israeli nationalists about the Four Mothers movement and about the Lebanon war--specifically, that Israel's withdrawal was a disastrous mistake caused by the protest--repudiated lessons that movement leaders and supporters hoped to instill. These lessons were that 1) resort to military force in hopes of solving complex political and security problems failed to accomplish declared objectives; and 2) such "wars of choice" were counterproductive and wound up harming Israeli interests--as Israel's 18 futile and costly years of military involvement in Lebanon showed.

What motivates contests over the legacies of successful antiwar protests? For many social movements, as Meyer (2006) notes, the stakes of claiming credit are high for movements' reputations and ongoing influence. However, for an ad hoc movement such as Four Mothers, the majority of whose activists had no interest in leading or being centrally involved in social movements after their goal of ending the Lebanon war was achieved, there were no compelling political reasons to be concerned with the movement's legacies or further establishing the movement's reputation. Movements whose goals for social change entail long-term or multi-generational efforts are necessarily concerned with movement survival and continuity; the Four Mothers movement was not.

In the course of their protest, movement leaders did, however, challenge the idea that retaliation and "hitting back" is a key source of power and security. They thus contested a widespread, deeply-held political and moral worldview among...

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