An unusual delegation visited East Jerusalem's Abu Dis neighborhood two days ago, sparking the curiosity of many Palestinian residents. Some of them already recognize the group's guide, Shaul Arieli, from the Geneva Initiative, who periodically brings groups to the area to personally acquaint them with the West Bank separation fence, which bisects the neighborhood.
But on this particular day, the group, comprised mostly of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, was greeted with astonished stares. The women, for their part, were focused on Arieli as he explained to them why he feels the fence harms Israel's interests, just as retaining control over Palestinian neighborhoods does.
"As a woman who identifies with the right-wing side of the spectrum I didn't even think to go on the tour," said one of the participants, an adviser for a senior member of the religious Shas party. "But I'm pleasantly surprised. We are learning a lot, and [the information] is presented from a very neutral viewpoint."
Another Shas activist had a different response to Arieli's vantage point, saying "he is a bigtime lefty."
The tour in East Jerusalem kicked off a two-day seminar, hosted by the Geneva Initiative at a Netanya hotel, for 60 female Shas activists. Among the participants were heads of Shas Ministers' bureaus, government workers and private sector employees, wives of senior party activists and even the granddaughter of Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In addition to Arieli's guided tour, the women were also addressed by former Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin, former Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs Sufian Abu Zeida and Meretz member attorney Talia Sasson.
The conference, which cost a total of NIS 28.5 thousand, is the fourth meet hosted by the Geneva Initiative for Shas supporters. Some six months ago, the Geneva Initiative invited journalists and parliamentary advisers from Shas to meet Palestinians in Turkey. Like previous events, the seminar was held in efforts to influence decision-makers who are not part of the initiative's natural demographic and are not supporters of organizations promoting a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Shas men and women are not the only sector on the agenda of the Geneva Initiative, which was founded in 2003 based on a theoretical Israeli-Palestinian "accord" which was never officially adopted by either side. During the past year, the initiative has diminished its activism among the public at large and focused most of its efforts on convincing what it calls the "unconvinced public" on the Israeli side, steering clear of the polar extremes.
The initiative's dwindling funds alongside the restructuring of the group's activities prompted the Geneva Initiative to devote some of its efforts on Israel's Russian immigrants and decision makers in the religious sector, especially Shas activists.
Gadi Baltiansky, the Geneva Initiative's director, explained that the initiative primarily focuses on second-tear Shas activists - including rabbis, public sector clerks and establishment chiefs - so as to make it "more comfortable for senior officials supporting an accord to voice their opinions" once a diplomatic solution will be up for discussion.
Conferences held until now were participated by Shas ministers' political advisors, neighborhood, as well as regional, rabbis, Shas' secretary general, director of El Hama'ayan, which is Shas' Torah education school system, editor of the Shas newspaper, members and chairmen of religious councils, the mayor of Beit Shemesh, and other elected officials.
How big a role does the generous hospitality of Geneva Initiative officials play in the willingness of Shas offal's to participate in these conferences?
"These conferences aren't meant for pleasure," Baltiansky said.
"There's no pool or beach time. It's the other way around, I really appreciate their participation. They wake up early in the morning, go on the tour and then for another taxing day and a half of lectures."
One of the organizers of the women's conference held this week is attorney Sigalit Shaltiel, a Shas activist and daughter to Kiryat Ono's chief rabbi, Rabbi Ratzon Arussi.
"It's true that there was some incentive, two days off in a feminine outing, without the children," Shaltiel said, adding that "on the other hand, you can hardly say that that was what drew the participants."
"Some didn't want to come, fearing that it identifies them as supporting separation, a peace agreement they do not believe in," she said.
Shaltiel saw a special importance in activities geared at Shas-oriented women. "Most of them may look fragile, but they're very assertive and many of them pull the strings," Shaltiel said.
"Most of them are mothers to children while at the same time holding positions in government ministries, National Insurance, the Jerusalem municipality, the Chief Rabbinate, hi-tech companies," Shaltiel said, adding: "I myself am an independent attorney and a member of the Second Authority for Television and Radio's board of directors."
"Of course it shows great candidness to come and listen to differing political views with no fear. The fact that we are bolstered by rabbis, and specifically Rabbi Yoself Ovadia's ruling, eases concerns of us being too bold."
The combination of 'Shas' and 'peace talks' indeed reminds many of the religious party's partnership in Yitzhak Rabin's government as well as Rabbi's Ovadia Yosef's celebrated ruling, stating that parts of Israel could be allowed to be turned over as part of a peace agreement, on grounds of Pikuach Nefesh - the Jewish principle which favors the securing of human life over other values.
But in recent years, the party has sought to appeal to more hawkish elements of the Israeli public by declaring its opposition to territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
Some months ago, Shas Chairman Eli Yishai was taping election ads geared to draw a rightist audience, just a few hundred meters from the spot where Shas female activists stood in Abu Dis.
He told reporters that "according to [Former Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni's plan to divide Jerusalem this territory is to be given over to the Palestinian Authority and Hamas?. What will be here? Will Hamas place flower stems in the barrel of his guns? Will Hamas sit on these porches and sing songs of peace? No, ladies and gentlemen, let's awaken from this illusion."
With that kind of backdrop, initiative chief Baltiansky is not getting his hopes up too high.
"I don't know what Netanyahu will do in his present term, but we do not want Shas to be an automatic opposition to any diplomatic advancement. I'm not saying that Shas will support, but I at least want it to not be an automatic objector," Baltiansky said.
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