JERUSALEM, May 16 (Alastair Macdonald/Reuters) - A weekend rally in Jerusalem
by Israelis demanding an end to their country's settlement and occupation of the West Bank
was hailed by its left-wing sponsors as the start of a major push that could help US peace efforts.
But the turnout of just a couple of thousand people drew scorn from settlers, who count on the rightist-led government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
to resist President Barack Obama's drive for a deal to establish a Palestinian state.
This is a beginning, said one of the rally's organizers, Yariv Oppenheimer of the anti-settlement Peace Now group, promising to step up public campaigning. It's a good turnout.
A crowd of 2,000 or so -- a shadow of the mass peace rallies of the 1990s but an improvement on recent attempts to galvanize support -- waved blue-and-white Israeli flags and placards reading Zionists Are Not Settlers on a warm Saturday evening.
Speaker after speaker told them they were the true patriots defending a Jewish state which risked disaster if nationalists on the right held on to occupied land so that Palestinians under Israel's rule would soon outnumber its 5.5 million Jews.
We want a Jewish state for the Jewish people with clear, recognized borders, not a Jewish state built on settlements and discrimination, said Eldad Yaniv, a founder last year of the National Left, one of several new groups arguing Israel
must quit Arab land to remain a democracy with a Jewish majority.
Accused of treason and of being anti-Zionist by the national camp comprising religious settlers and their backers on Israel's right, the National Left's manifesto focuses on establishing its own credentials as defenders of a Zionist state whose founding generation were mostly secular socialists.
These people are getting more aggressive about being Zionist, said David Ricci, a politics professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University who took part in the rally. It's kind of new: they're saying a Palestinian state is in our interests.
For Anat Maor, a former member of parliament for the small, left-wing Meretz
party, the evening showed Israel's peace camp was still alive: It's important to us to show that it's not just outside pressure. It is the voice of the people of Israel.
Reflecting scepticism about Netanyahu's good faith in saying he wants a two-state solution with the Palestinians, one man held a sign reading: Barack Obama, Please Force Peace On Us. I'm here because my country is being taken away from me by the right, said Zohar Eviatar, a psychology professor at Haifa University, as she waved a blue-and-white flag.
Yonat, a 26-year-old youth worker, said as the national anthem concluded the rally on downtown Jaffa Road: Originally Zionism is a left-wing ideology. The right has taken Zionism in a fascist direction but the flag and anthem are ours.
About 500,000 Jews, some citing a Biblical birthright, live in the West Bank and areas in and around East Jerusalem that Israel captured in a 1967 war. Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
While opinion polls continue to show mainstream support for a two-state solution outweighs opposition to handing over occupied land, voters deserted left-wing parties in droves after a Palestinian uprising began in 2000. They have yet to recover.
The long dominant Labor party
of state founder David Ben-Gurion and the late, peacemaking premier Yitzhak Rabin has had just 13 of 120 seats in parliament since the election last year that brought Netanyahu's right-wing Likud
back to power.
Many on Saturday wore blue T-shirts bearing the faces of Ben-Gurion and Rabin, who was assassinated at a peace rally in 1995 by an Israeli rightist. They heard Achinoam Nini, a singer who also performed on the night Rabin was shot, tell them from the platform: We must take our fate in our own hands.
Netanyahu, pressed by the Obama administration, last year dropped his outright opposition to a Palestinian state. But few analysts believe the conflict is close to resolution, despite a resumption of negotiations this month via U.S. mediators.
Settler leader Danny Dayan scoffed: The total failure of the new, united left movement to bring out more than a handful of demonstrators ... proves once again that the overwhelming majority of Israelis recognize that the Jewish residents of Yesha (the occupied territories) are true Zionists.
With a dose of self-deprecating humor on behalf of the aging baby-boomers and idealistic youngsters gathered to fly the flag of Israel's left, politics professor Ricci said: This is group therapy. It's important that people come out and know that there are other people like me and that it's not all over. (Editing by Tim Pearce)