Background / Mideast Peace as Cause Celebre

Driven to distraction by the tragedies of eternal warfare and the burdens of economic strife, Israelis woke Wednesday to a peace initiative so outlandish as to accomplish the impossible - defy immediate condemnation.

Driven to distraction by the tragedies of eternal warfare and the burdens of economic strife, Israelis woke Wednesday to a peace initiative so outlandish as to accomplish the impossible - defy immediate condemnation.

Heralded by a literally star-spangled flourish in the popular press, an organization called OneVoice Israel announced that a red carpet list of marquee actors - Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Jason Alexander, Danny De Vito and Rhea Pearlman - had signed on for a decidedly unorthodox mission: coming to the Holy Land in an effort to make peace.

Just last week, an alternative peace plan put forward by former justice minister Yossi Beilin and ex-Palestinian Authority officials came under immediate verbal flak from a number of the veteran dove's former allies.

So withering was the criticism that, even before the very existence of the proposal was made known, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly denounced Beilin's plan as lending aid and comfort to the Palestinians.

Beilin came in for more scorn Wednesday, amid news reports that he planned to lobby for support for his Geneva Accord among leaders in visits to France and Belgium - two countries widely viewed in Israel as being hostile to the Jewish state and its policies.

"In other words," said news show anchor Yael Dan on Wednesday, "Yossi Beilin - Out, Brad Pitt - In."

Security permitting, the stars are to arrive in Israel at the end of the year or the beginning of 2004, said OneVoice Israel Executive Director David Leffler, a one-time aide to Yitzhak Rabin, and more recently, Director-General of Israel's Ministry of Science, Culture and Sport.

Leffler said the group's goal is to promote a referendum, in which "very large numbers" of both Israelis and Palestinians would take part.

The measure would allow "all citizens to voice their opinions on the principle issues of the conflict between us and the Palestinians," Leffler told Army Radio Wednesday.

In an apparent reference to a current mass petition campaign led by Palestinian moderate Sari Nusseibeh and former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon, Leffler said, "By contrast to other initiatives that state, 'Here is the plan, sign it,' we are coming with questions that allow everyone to answer each separately."

The stars are members of the board of the organization. "They agreed to lend their names because they believe in what we are doing."

The group has also mobilized a number of big names from the world of Holy Land politics, with a catholic range of outlooks on the Middle East conflict.

The group includes Deputy Public Security Minister Michael Ratzon of Sharon's Likud party, senior Labor lawmaker and former general Matan Vilnai, MK Etti Livni of the secular-centrist Shinui, and rabbi and former cabinet minister Michael Melchior as well as Dr. Fathi Arafat, brother of the Palestinian Authority chairman and Yasser Abbas, the son of former PA prime minister Mahmoud Abbas.

Through the results of the referendum, "We want each side to see that the other side has a moderate majority," Leffler said.

Along with their names, and their words in support of the initiative, some of the stars have donated funds and even the use of their homes to the effort, he added.

"I truly appreciate the fact that people like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who are not Jews and are not connected to these issues in their daily lives, saw fit to look into this," Leffler said.

Vilnai, a no-nonsense former deputy army chief who at first blush appears the antithesis of the Hollywood scene, said Wednesday that the OneVoice intitiative seeks to accomplish its goals in a diametrically different manner than the Geneva Accord.

"This is very difficult at first, but we will succeed in the end, to propel a process by which the people in the Palestinian street and the Israeli street will say what they think, directions for a solution in the bloody conflict between us and them," Vilnai said.

Noting that the intiative linked figures from many parties, the Likud among them, Vilnai told Israel Radio, "This is the first time that it is not the 'permanent' fixtures of the left that are talking, rather elements of the center and the right of the political map, trying to advance a process between us and the Palestinians."

Vilnai said the fact of the process in itself bore an important message, helping grant an answer to those who insisted that there was "no one to talk to on the other side, and nothing to talk about even if there were."