Tel Aviv, Israel — In a small, windowless back room of an apartment building, 13 men and women, most in their 20s, sit in a circle mapping out strategy for a demonstration. In one corner lies a stack of Styrofoam placards cut in the shape of doves. On the walls are posters demanding peace.
The scene evokes memories of the Vietname war protests of the 1960s and '70s in the United States. But the time is this summer; the place is Tel Aviv; and the demonstration is against Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's declared intention to move his office to the predominantly Arab sector of east Jerusalem.
Called Shalom Achshav, or Peace Now, the movement is the most vocal and organized force within Israel against policies that appear to escalate tensions between Palestinians and Jews and lessen the chance for a negotiated peace.
Its followers vehemently oppose Israeli settlements and military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and, most recently, the law affirming Jerusalem as the undivided Israeli capital, which led this week to stalled Palestinian autonomy talks with Egypt.
As in the American peace movement, students, academics, and intellectuals make up the backbone of the Israeli movement's strength. But the similarity ends there.
"In the States, people threatened to burn their draft cards and leave the country. Here, we're against the idea," says Janet Aviad, a Hebrew University sociologist who came to Israel from New York in 1972 and is a Peace Now spokesman.
"We're opposed to the policies of this government or any government that doesn't try to work toward a solution to the Palestinian issue. But we'll pay taxes, join the Army, and be full citizens," she explains.
Indeed, the movement began with 250 reserve Army officers who, in March 1978, signed a letter to Prime Minister Begin, asking that he make significant concessions to Egypt in order to reach a peace settlement at Camp David.
The letter unexpectedly ignited the sympathies of thousands of Israelis, and the movement was born almost overnight. Within two weeks 200,000 Israelis signed a similarly worded petition, and an estimated 100,000 demonstrations rallied for peace on the eve of Camp David.
Peace Now has continued to draw tens of thousands of demonstrators to rallies , usually to protest West Bank settlements. Rejecting the claims of those who believe Israel has a biblical right to the West Bank, Peace Now says that security alone should guide Israel's policies toward the occupied territory.
Also, they believe, ruling the 1.i million Arabs who live there means that Israel cannot call itself Jewish or democratic.
That military occupation, say Peace Now activists, is destroying the fiber of Israeli society. "I think what's happening now is very dangerous and very disgusting," says Orly Lubin, a radio editor and Peace Now spokesman.
"After the '73 war, all the world was against us and we had to act very strong," Ms. Lubin goes on. "Actually, we stopped being Jewish in the sense of Judaism being a moral thing. And we stopped being Israeli in the sense of Zionism building a new person who is strong and beautiful but also cares about other people."
According to a recent poll, support for such feelings has grown to 22 percent of the Israeli population. (The movement makes a point of not having "members," as a political party would, so no figures are available on the number of followers it has attracted.)
"I used to talk about a Palestinian state and people looked at me like I'm a traitor," says Raffi Miller, a director of children's television. "Now, more and more, they may not like the idea but they accept it as a fact of life."
This past July, 56 American Jewish leaders signed a statement, drafted by the movement and endorsed by 250 prominet Israelis, which advocates territorial compromise on the West Bank. "We are showing the Begin administration that the Jewish Diaspora [Jews living outside Israel] doesn't speak in one voice -- the government's voice," says Avshalom Vilan, a signer of the original officers' letter.
Critics of the movement discount its growing popularity, charging that its followers are naive idealists seeking peace at any price.
"If they believe that the Palestine Liberation Organization is willing to accept Israeli peace and tranquility, maybe they have some information we don't have," says Naftali Lavie, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry.
Although activists like Orly Lubin believe that "the government of Israel should just say that it is willing to negotiate with any Palestinian body -- even the PLO -- which will declare that negotiations are the only way to solve the problems," they admit to being frustrated because no moderate voice has emerged among the Palestinians.
And some say the movement may be losing momentum as a result. Representatives of the movement, therefore, have taken it on themselves to talk with Palestinian journalists, mayors, and professionals in an effort to find that voice among the West Bank Arabs. So far, they have met with no success.
"If we could get one of the mayors or real big leaders in the West Bank to come out with some statement that says they're willing to live side by side with us as neighbors, then it's great for us, not only emotionally but politically," says Ms. Lubin.
"Then we could come out and say, 'Listen, they're not all saying they want to throw the Jews into the sea. Now there's someone to talk to.'"