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Seek Peace Now, Lest the Window Close

The instant reason for Peace Now’s founding — that’s Israel’s Shalom Achshav movement, not Americans for Peace Now — back in 1978 was the aftermath of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Israel and the Begin-Sadat Camp David meetings hosted by Jimmy Carter. Shalom Achshav was determined to press Prime Minister Menachem Begin to take the steps necessary to achieve peace with Egypt.

So back then, the word “Now” made perfect sense: Peace Now. 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 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, heave a sigh of relief that would reverberate more than the “shot heard round the world” in 1775 in Concord, Mass.

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; that conflict, which had so shaped international relations around the world for decades, was now over and done.

And Rabin knew as well that windows that can be opened can also be closed — or simply begin to slip back until they are shut. 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, not even during its War of Independence in 1948. 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.”

And sometimes, pieces of the hope crystallized, were translated into binding peace treaties — with Egypt, with Jordan. Huge achievements, these — yet not, as had been hoped, presage 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 rises, becomes by virtue of its missiles dramatically closer to Israel.

The window that was once wide open, allowing fresh air and fresh hope, has inched down and, reminiscent of the famous clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that clock that reminded us how close it was to midnight, 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 Middle East. The dates are not yet firmly set, the location has yet to be determined, the list of participants is not yet known.

Israel will send its foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and its defense minister, Ehud Barak, who agree with each other about very little. The Palestinian Authority will send four senior officials who do not get along with one another. Saudi Arabia has set preconditions that may well not be met.

Adequate preparatory work has not yet been done. Some hawkish American Jewish groups are holding their fire for the time being, but if the conference proceeds they can be depended on to oppose it — for fear that a lame-duck president may feel free to lean on Israel, or for 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 planned conference. And there is only one reason to take it very, very seriously and to do what we can to ensure its success: It is an opportunity, and it ought not be squandered.

Barak, the erstwhile dove who has for some time now been in recovery, says that peace with the Palestinians any time soon is “a fantasy.” But it is not less a fantasy that Israel can simply mosey along indefinitely without still greater internal erosion.

The economy may be booming, but the public education system is in deep trouble, and government support for higher education, which used to distinguish Israel, is now near the very bottom of industrialized countries. A third of Israeli children live in poverty. The country becomes more coarse.

It is not the case that even an ill-prepared conference is better than none. But it is the case that there is still time, time for the kind of near-frenzy of preparatory activity that is required to make the conference productive.

For that to happen, our hands must grasp and hold open the window. We must tell all 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.

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