Benny Begin
Benny Begin speaking at a Geneva Initiative youth leadership conference. Photo by Mati Milstein
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A large notice featuring the blue-and-white "Ken" and "Yes to an agreement" greeted visitors in late May to an old building in downtown Kfar Sava, the Raizel Cultural Center. The invitees: local Likud members. The organizers: Shlomo Madmon, branch chairman of the Kfar Sava Likud branch and member of the party secretariat; and the Geneva Initiative, which is promoting an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The guest of honor: Mayor Yehuda Ben Hemo. The program promised a speech from Col. (res. ) Shaul Arieli of the Israel Defense Forces and a panel discussion with three guests: Geneva Initiative co-architect Yossi Beilin, Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely and Dr. Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, a leading figure in Fatah and former minister of prisoners affairs in the Palestinian Authority. It was Madmon's last event for Likud, his party for the past 40 years.

Fifty to 60 men and women, most of them no longer young, sipped juice and ate bourekas pastries before entering the auditorium. They were transfixed by Arieli's sophisticated presentation. Ten years ago he was head of the Peace Administration in Ehud Barak's government, which in July 2000 returned empty-handed from the Camp David summit with PA chairman Yasser Arafat. Since his discharge from the IDF Arieli has been recruited for active duty in the public relations platoon of the Geneva Initiative. With endless patience he brought his audience back to the early days of Zionism, sketching out history with the aid of maps and demographic tables. A man in one of the front rows who was wearing a skullcap interrupted loudly on occasion. "Let us listen," people in the back rows called out, "he's saying important things."

Madmon, 64, who has a great sense of humor, surveyed the audience with a broad smile. "Dr. Sufyan," he said, turning to Abu Zaydeh, sitting beside him, "Likud has made many concessions. We said two banks to the Jordan and were left with two banks to the Yarkon. 'Greater Israel' is up in the attic. When Shimon Peres brought the London Agreement we refused to return the West Bank to Jordan, and now [Prime Minister Benjamin] Bibi Netanyahu spoke about two states and even [Benny] Begin and [Moshe] Yaalon didn't demonstrate against him." Madmon glanced at Beilin. " [Prime minister] Menachem Begin received 48 Knesset seats and left Sinai. [Prime minister] Ariel Sharon had 37 seats and he left Gaza. Give Likud 50 seats and Bibi will return all the territories."

Abu Zaydeh and Beilin, former chairman of Meretz, expressed skepticism about that possibility. "There will only be peace when the Jews stop talking with themselves and start looking at themselves," Abu Zaydeh said. Most of the time, most of the audience members listened patiently, their body language suggesting that many of those who had arrived with answers left with questions.

Understanding and listening

More than 4,000 people, including many Likud activists, have attended 60 meetings held by the Geneva Initiative in the past year throughout the country. The GI also held, among other events, a seminar in Turkey for Israeli and Palestinian journalists and, in Jordan, a seminar for Israeli and Palestinian parliamentary aides.

Eitan Behar, a Likud activist from Bat Yam, summed up his impressions after participating in a meeting with young Palestinians for the first time: "Not all Israelis are Arab-haters, and not all Arabs are terrorists. I only hope we'll be able to find a compromise, a way to achieve understanding, listening and acceptance."

GI director Gadi Baltiansky says that at meetings held away from the public eye politicians often remove their masks and say what they really think. For example, Improvement of Government Services Minister Michael Eitan (Likud ) said at a conference in Dimona in February that there are not major differences between his views and the principles of the Geneva Initiative.

But this time, participation in a GI event came at a price: On June 13, two weeks after the Kfar Sava conference, the council of the local Likud branch ousted Madmon as branch chairman after seven years. Hotovely canceled her scheduled participation in advance. "When a letter of support for the Geneva Initiative was published by the organizers, who are known as Likud members, the event assumed a problematic angle in the intra-Likud arena," Hotovely explained to Haaretz. She is happy to attend events that deal with political issues of significance to the State of Israel, she said, "on condition that all the data are on the table ahead of time and without calling for behavior that contradicts the Likud platform."

The "letter of support for the Geneva Initiative" that deterred Hotovely was a notice published in April, long before she canceled her attendance. Under the heading, "Bibi, say yes to peace," Madmon and company wrote to Netanyahu: "We support you in a desire to achieve peace and security for Israel. We believe that the best path to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, Jewish Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel and the security that we all deserve passes through negotiations, a final-status agreement and a permanent, recognized and secure border with our neighbors."

The notice featured the names of the heads of the Likud branches in Haifa, Ra'anana, Even Yehuda, Daliat al-Carmel and Shfaram; Likud Central Committee members from Haifa, Dimona and Moshav Zeitan, and Aharon Gozlan, chairman of the Internet forum Hadashot Halikud. On the bottom it said that the notice was published and funded by the Geneva Initiative.

The outline of the Geneva Initiative offers a two-state solution, an exchange of territories, a special arrangement in the Old City of Jerusalem and the return of refugees according to an agreed-upon quota. It is hard to believe that Netanyahu is unaware that the master plan for the principle of dividing the country between the two states more or less coincides with the Geneva document. If he intends to carry out what he said a year ago on the Bar-Ilan University campus, then Madmon and his friends from the ad can tell him what kind of reception will await him in the Likud "field."

Some selected quotations from the Internet site Likudnik: "I was surprised to see Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz in the home of the signatory of the Geneva Initiative together with additional signatories who are opposed to Netanyahu... I believe that his aides trapped him and he naively entered a hornets' nest... This act of Minister Katz causes many activists to think whether the minister has also decided to support the Geneva Initiative and to join the traitorous activists and in effect to betray Bibi Netanyahu and all the Likud activists too!!!"

"Do you really believe that Madmon has people? We saw exactly how many people he and his traitorous partners have... In the case of Madmon the balloon will burst and everyone understands how destructive he is to Likud and how much of a despicable traitor he is, who isn't worth a lira and who has nobody behind him at all! Madmon, go to Beilin who might do you a favor... Madmon, Herzl Akko [Haifa Likud chairman], Avi Harari [Or Yehuda branch chairman], Aharon Gozlan and Avi Ben Zikri [a Likud Central Committee member from Dimona] - you're all out of bounds! You are ostracized and we call to remove you from Likud."

Baltiansky says that parliamentary aides to Likud MKs have reported being pressured by party activists to cancel their attendance of a GI-sponsored seminar. He says that some Shas members want to attend GI activities, but were prohibited "from above" from signing a supportive ad like the one signed by Likud members. Arieli says that their reluctance reflects a weakness in the path chosen by both parties.

Madmon claims that the order to oust him as branch head came from the highest authorities in Likud headquarters in Metzudat Ze'ev. He says that they rode the waves of extremism that are flooding Likud to punish him for daring to oppose Netanyahu's bid last month to postpone the party convention. (The Prime Minister's Office denies any connection to Madmon's expulsion ). "This is not the Likud movement that I knew," wrote Madmon to Likud Central Committee members the day after he was expelled. "This is not the movement whose path became part of my political world, and in which I could express a different opinion."

In a response, Likud stated: "No activity was carried out on behalf of the prime minister, his bureau or on behalf of official Likud institutions against the Geneva Initiative. Any activity mentioned in the article, if it in fact took place, was a private initiative and was decided on by the activists themselves."