TEL AVIV // Dozens of prominent Israeli academics, artists and other public figures will today protest against Israel's West Bank occupation and express support for a Palestinian plan to seek United Nations support for statehood.
The demonstration is a bid to help the Palestinian leadership garner international backing for unilaterally seeking the UN's endorsement in September for an independent Palestinian state. It is also an attempt to pressure the predominantly right-wing Israeli government, whose continued settlement expansion in the West Bank derailed negotiations last year, to take steps to advance the suspended peace process.
The Israeli rally comes as the Palestinian campaign appears to be gaining pace.
Yesterday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said during a visit to Tunisia that more than 130 nations at the UN General Assembly are set to recognise a Palestinian state within the borders of the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war - namely, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. That number, he added, could be increased to 140 or 150 countries even if the Palestinians "make no further efforts," and that countries such as Britain and France may also be open to accepting an independent Palestine. Nevertheless, the vote would be largely symbolic because the assembly's decisions are not legally binding, and it remains unclear what steps the Palestinians will take afterward.
Mr Abbas, who will be in Paris today to meet with French President Nikolas Sarkozy, is on a diplomatic swing that has already taken him to Britain, Denmark and Russia and will take him to Germany in May as he seeks statehood support.
In another possible boost to the Palestinian campaign, a report in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday quoted Western diplomats as saying that the so-called Middle East Quartet - made up of the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia - is considering pressuring Israel by recognising a Palestine within the 1967 borders.
Israel has aggressively campaigned against the Palestinian plan, insisting a state should be established only as a result of a negotiated settlement between the two sides.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is due to speak in front of the US Congress in May, where he may reportedly outline a new peace proposal. Israeli media have reported that the premier is weighing several alternatives, including a partial withdrawal from the West Bank or an interim peace deal.
However, the Palestinians have repeatedly insisted they would not accept a temporary peace agreement and have instead pushed for a comprehensive, permanent accord.
Today's protest includes 17 respected public figures who in the past had received Israel's top prize for civil achievements in fields including education and science. The group will publicise a statement demanding a "total end of the occupation."
The demonstrators have chosen a symbolic site for their rally, holding it in a building on Tel Aviv's prominent Rothschild Boulevard where David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, read out and signed Israel's own declaration of independence in 1948.
"The independence of both peoples mutually strengthens them - it is both a moral and existential necessity," the demonstrators said in the statement. "We call every peace and freedom seeker and all nations to welcome the Palestinian declaration of independence."
Sefi Rachlevsky, a Haaretz columnist and one of the protest's initiators, said efforts to halt the Palestinian campaign may hurt Israel by causing it to "isolate itself and turn into a kind of South Africa." Yehuda Bauer, a historian at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said he joined the initiative out of a "Zionist perspective" that aims to keep Israel a predominantly Jewish state. Mr Bauer added that the only way Israel could maintain a Jewish majority is if the West Bank becomes part of a Palestinian state instead of Israel possibly annexing the territory.
As part of their campaign, the Palestinian leadership is also encouraging demonstrations against Israel's occupation. However, Mr Abbas yesterday said that he would not accept a violent uprising against Israel. "We have the popular resistance. But to say that you want to hold a pistol or gun to fight, then excuse me, I will not allow that as long as I am president."
Israel and the Palestinians launched direct peace negotiations in September, but they broke down three weeks later after Israel rejected the Palestinian request to extend a partial freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. The US-backed efforts to reignite the negotiations have so far failed amid the spat over the settlements, which Palestinians view as a key impediment to the establishment of an independent state.