The small convoy, three cars in all, moves quickly through the clean, empty and burning hot streets of Netivot. The stickers on the cars "Yes to an agreement," give them away: Yossi Beilin and his troupe, the Geneva Initiative people, have come to town. Each week they visit a different city, and like old-time peddlers, they try to market their dubious, forgotten wares, and to open people's eyes to their unique qualities.
Working slowly and diligently, the long-suffering group meets week after week, winter and summer, with heads of local authorities, local council members, high schools students and factory workers. Almost a year and a half of Sisyphean work, lacking any media coverage, is taking place entirely in the paralyzing shadow of the disengagement plan, which is neutralizing thoughts of anything else.
About 45,000 people have met Beilin and his people during these encounters, but the trip last Tuesday was different for two reasons: This is the first time the program has included rabbis - Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira, the "Baba Baruch," in Netivot, and Rabbi Yigal Shriki in Ofakim. And the second reason was Yehiel Zohar, the mayor of Netivot. The Geneva people have had the opportunity to meet quite a number of elected officials and wheeler dealers in the Likud, who have expressed openness, interest and supportive curiosity regarding the model for a permanent status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which was developed in the Swiss city in November 2003. But what they heard from Zohar, a veteran Likudnik, left them speechless. And they're not accustomed to that.
He greeted them in his office in the morning, in City Hall, which looked quite deserted for that hour. They came in a small delegation: Beilin, Brigadier General (res.) Shlomo Brom, Nissim Calderon and Gadi Baltiansky, the director general. "Although I am a member of the Likud Central Committee, I am much closer to you than I am to [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon," Zohar declared to Beilin. After Beilin spoke about the connection between the end of the conflict and a solution to Israel's economic and social problems, the mayor began to speak:
"All these years they have been telling us stories, that Israel's only problem is Yesha [Judea, Samaria and Gaza] and the Arabs. Today people are beginning to understand that they have been deceived. That the real issues are education, welfare and health care. If the left in Israel had presented things the way you present them, things would have looked different. If you work with the members of the Likud Central Committee, you can change the map. Most of the members of the central committee share my opinions. Most of the Likud heads of the local authorities share my opinions, too. Ask them: What has the right given you? Nothing. If only you would take over the government - but it won't happen. Every time you were in power, your people in the government ministries gave me more. You can quote me anywhere. From you I got everything I wanted, much more than Bibi [Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], whom I supported until now, gives me."
It was impossible to stop Zohar, nor did anyone try. He spoke about the problems in his city. "Every day I see people in distress, sitting in the dark because their electricity has been cut off, and what do they talk to them about? About Judea and Samaria, about the settlers. I recently said at a very small conference: You deceived us! You told us that living in the heart of Gaza means security for Israel. We all went and said that. Living there is security? All the money goes there, and is it any wonder that the Palestinians hate us? I saw how they live, and in their place I would also shoot at us."
In the coming weeks he is supposed to arrange a meeting between the Geneva people and the members of the Likud Central Committee. At least that's what he promised to do.
Beilin and the Baba
In the courtyard of the handsome villa of Rabbi Baruch Abuhatzeira in Netivot, beneath a roof, a luxurious Mercedes, of the type that government ministers can only dream about, is parked. In the foyer, which was once called a "hall," at the head of a rectangular table, sits the Baba. A large back skullcap covers his head. At the end of the table is a round tray, and on it a variety of medicines. Beilin, in a picture that will certainly gladden the heart of MK Tommy Lapid (Shinui), sits to the left of the rabbi, who is quick to compliment him and "Shimon," for their welcome activity for the benefit of Judaism, when both of them - Peres and Beilin - were in the Finance Ministry, between 1988 and 1990.
"The Likud is destroying the country economically and socially, but the public is blind," complains the rabbi. "Since Sharon came to power, all the 10 plagues have descended on us. When you were in the treasury, is there anyone you didn't help?"
Beilin cringes a little at the outpouring of praise. It is not difficult to tell who is the object of the rabbi's affection, and whom he hates. "Sharon, for example," he says, "this entire disengagement is only to save himself and his sons from their corruption." Last week, the rabbi spoke before tens of thousands of settlers who began their journey to Kfar Maimon in Netivot. He says he asked them not to behave violently. Others recall that he encouraged them in their struggle. "I," he says, "was the first in 1991 to speak about negotiations with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], and I tell you today that if after the disengagement there is no diplomatic continuation, if there are no negotiations, there will be a catastrophe here."
"Your activity," he advises Beilin, "should be with [Palestinian Authority chair Mahmoud Abbas] Abu Mazen, who has to stop the terror. I also think that the disengagement is good for the Jews. I am in favor of a separation of powers, on condition that they honor it. That the peace be genuine, not phony."
The rabbi is unable to complete an idea without returning to Shimon. It turns out that they are very close friends. After the elections in 1996, he says, "Shimon was unable to accept the loss to Netanyahu. Each time he asked me, what did I do? Why did I lose? Each time I would tell him a different story, to calm him down. I felt sorry for him. By coincidence, on the day Bibi evacuated Hebron, I was in Shimon's office. Again he asked me: Honorable rabbi, why did I lose? I told him, this time I have an answer for you: If you were prime minister, you would not be able to evacuate Hebron, God sent Netanyahu only so he could do that for you. Shimon said to me: Now I feel better."
The stories about Shimon arouse the rabbi's long-standing anger at Ehud Barak. "How that man tortured Shimon, his teacher and mentor," he says angrily, and here, too, he has a story. "In the presidential elections [in summer 2000], Moshe Katsav came to me. He's a friend of mine, and he asked me to influence Shas to support him. I told him, even with Shas, you don't have a majority. He told me, you'd be surprised, honorable rabbi, six MKs from the Labor Party will vote for me. I asked him, how are you sure of that? He told me, Barak came to me and promised me."
Barak's office, in response: It never happened. Either the rabbi is lying, or Katsav lied to the rabbi.
Beilin and his men get a wealth of marketing advice from Rabbi Shriki in Ofakim, who is said to be one of the greatest of the Kabbalists. It turns out that the honorable young rabbi is a supporter of the Geneva Initiative. What bothers him is that there are no religious, ultra-Orthodox people among the leaders of the Geneva plan. "As long as only the left presents things, people will have difficulty trusting you," he tells his guests, in his villa. "The minute you take people who wear skullcaps, and outstanding people from the right, you will have a majority and they'll trust you. Take someone like MK Amnon Lipkin-Shahak [one of the signers of the Geneva Initiative, who often joins Beilin's `a day in the community' trips, Y.V.], let him talk about it in the media. People will believe him, because he's a former chief of staff."
What's going on here, Beilin was asked at the end of the visit, have Ofakim and Netivot become bastions of the left?
"This is not the first time we've been in the south," he says, "and we always find an open door there. A substantial percentage of these guys are quite strange. They're in the Likud only because it's the ruling party. But I discover a great deal of openness there to a final status agreement, and even under quite far-reaching conditions. The moment they understand the connection between the end of the conflict and an improvement in their situation, they have a different attitude towards it. There is almost no hostility, there are very practical questions and genuine curiosity."
And what will come of this curiosity?
Beilin is the last person to fantasize. In the upcoming elections there won't be a revolution, maybe there will be a beginning of understanding that after the implementation of the disengagement, the time has come for a final status agreement.
And by the way, where were he and his friends last week, when the right held its horror show in Kfar Maimon, and where will they be again next week, during the second act?
"I don't think that we should be there," he replies, surprised at the question. "The left is not relevant to this issue. It's between the right and the government, the police, the army. Why should we stick our noses in? Our job will begin in September, after the disengagement. Then we'll come with our plan."
Nevertheless, doesn't the left have something to say when the right tries forcibly to prevent decisions of the government and the Knesset?
Beilin sighs: "Of course we have to be on guard. To be interviewed, to issue declarations. We've done that."
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