The instant reason for Peace Now's founding back in 1978 was the aftermath of the Sadat visit to Israel and the Begin-Sadat Camp David meetings hosted by President Jimmy Carter. Shalom Achshav was determined to press Prime Minister Begin to take the steps necessary to achieve peace with Egypt.
So, back then, the word "Now" made perfect sense. But ever since, Peace Now has taken endless criticism for that word. Now? For very many Israelis, the word "peace" was — and for many still is — followed not by "now," but by "but."
"Now" suggests that there is an appropriate partner on the other side; "now" implies indifference to genuine security concerns; "now" means all the upheavals that any peace agreement would require must be faced rather than evaded.
Not that the overwhelming majority of Israelis don't want peace. Of course they do, and if there were a magic wand that might be waved and presto — no more conflict — Israelis would take to the streets in wild celebration. But there is no magic wand. All there is, and it isn't much, is an occasional opportunity, most no more than a hazardous perch on the slope of a steep mountain.
Yitzhak Rabin knew well the world of occasional opportunity. When the Cold War ended, he began to speak of a "window of opportunity" that had suddenly opened for Israel and its neighbors. No longer would Israelis and their Arab neighbors be used as pawns or as surrogates in the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was urgency to his understanding because he believed that before long, elements of the Arab world would develop the competence to threaten Israel as it had never been threatened. Iran, then still a slumbering giant, was of explicit and particular concern to him.
The Cold War has now been over, and the window open for 17 years. Now and then during those years, there was something that could fairly be called a "peace process." Now and then, there was substance to the hope for peace, even if it never seemed quite imminent, never quite "now."
Pieces of the hope crystallized into the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. These were huge achievements yet not, as had been hoped, preludes to a resolution of the more challenging and more enervating conflict: Israel's chronic conflict with the Palestinians. The occupation persists, with all its insult to the Palestinians, with all its injury to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Iran has become, by virtue of its missiles, dramatically closer to Israel. The window that was once wide open has inched down. There is only just enough room left to grab hold of it before it shuts completely, to be opened again who knows when.
In November, the United States is convening a peace conference on the Mideast. Adequate preparatory work has not yet been done. Some hawkish American Jewish groups are for the time being holding their fire, but if the conference proceeds, depend on them to oppose it for fear that a lame-duck president may feel free to lean on Israel, as well as fear that the personal stake of a lackluster secretary of state may make Condoleezza Rice too energetic for comfort.
In short, there are many reasons to downplay the significance of the conference. And there's only one reason to take it seriously and do what we can to ensure its success: It is an opportunity and ought not to be squandered.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the erstwhile dove who has been in recovery, says that peace with the Palestinians any time soon is a "fantasy." Yet it's another fantasy to think that Israel can mosey along indefinitely without still greater internal erosion.
It is not the case that even an ill-prepared conference is better than none. It's that there is still time — time for the kind of near-frenzy of preparatory activity required to make the conference productive. For that to happen, our hands must grasp and hold open the window. We must tell those who may attend that we insist this opportunity not be yet another failure, that we are determined not only to repeat our prayers for peace, but to seek peace — now!
Leonard Fein is a Boston-based columnist.