By his own admission, Avi Buskila is no bleeding heart. That makes him a different breed as the new director of the dovish Shalom Achshav, Israel’s Peace Now movement.
The Israeli left is generally perceived as Ashkenazi, elitist, old and stuck in its ways, and has been losing ground for years. Buskila, 41, was born and raised on a moshav in the country’s northern periphery, served as a combat soldier in the IDF and, like the majority of Israelis, is Mizrachi — his family emigrated from Morocco. He believes he can speak the language that will sell that majority on Peace Now’s agenda supporting negotiations with the Palestinians.
“The leftist camp didn’t change its language for years,” Buskila said last month during a visit to Washington and the office of Americans for Peace Now, which supports the work of Shalom Achshav. “If we’re not voicing the fears of people, we can’t change the minds of people.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like President Donald Trump, is where he is today “because people are not voting for an agenda. People vote their fears. People vote for somebody who looks like them.”
These are not idealistic words from a leader of the peace camp, which concerns itself with justice for the Palestinians as well as security for Israel and the threat to its Jewish and democratic character. During an hour-long interview, Buskila rarely mentioned the Palestinians. But he did talk at length about the language the left would have to adopt to speak to the Israeli mainstream.
“We can’t talk academic and legalese language,” said Buskila, who has worked in the advertising industry. “We have to talk the same language as the government talks — the language is simple.”
Buskila has said that his mother is the one family member he has convinced to drop support from Netanyahu. But during the second Lebanon war in 2006, a Hezbollah rocket crashed into a wall near her house.
“Her fears are real,” Buskila said. “Our message should be that for peace we need three things. We need a strong army — and we have a strong army. We need an international border. And we need a peace treaty or [signed] agreement.
“It’s very simple. It’s not talking about human rights or giving back land. We have to say [Israel has to pursue peace] for a better life.”
The peace movement has to take into account generational changes, he said. Shalom Achshav was formed in 1978 after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s surprise peace overtures. Israel has held onto the territories even longer, for almost 50 years.
“I’m 41. I was born into the occupation,” Buskila said. “For my generation, it’s not about giving land back. It’s about giving back what is ours. But there are 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank. If we want to solve that situation, we have to have an agreement [with them].”
By shifting the conversation to quiet borders, he hopes to attract centrists who support Netanyahu for security, but don’t share the right’s obsession with settlements.
And he challenges the machismo of the right, which believes the world is against Israel and saw a major threat in last year’s so-called Children’s Intifada, when Palestinian teenagers attacked Israelis with kitchen utensils.
“We have tanks and rockets, and we’re afraid of a girl with a fork?” Buskila said.
He opposes boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, as well as Israel’s continuing settlement of the West Bank, which Shalom Achshav is in the forefront of documenting.
“The world should go with Israel hand in hand,” he said. “And the world should also know what Israel is doing in the West Bank.”
Buskila was already a periphery (the parts of the country outside the main cities) and gay rights activist when the Gaza war broke out between Israel and Hamas in 2014. That conflict’s outcome drove him into the peace camp. During the 50-day conflict, his team of reservists was responsible for evacuating the dead and the wounded.
“I was 39, and for the first time in my life these young soldiers could have been my children,” he said. “I was very angry. I felt the government wasn’t clear about what it wanted with the army. In the end, Netanyahu signed an agreement with Hamas — but nothing changed. Sixty-eight soldiers died and five [Israeli] civilians and we didn’t solve the problem. So why did we do it? We could have signed that agreement before we lost those children.”
Last April he became director of Shalom Achshav. Since then he’s been trying out his new language.
“We should talk about people’s lives,” he said. “And always say without shame that we love Israel very much.”