A Chance to Yell at Yossi Beilin

A summery Saturday morning in Bat Yam. Hanche shakes Itzik. "Wake up," she orders. "We're going to the Geneva Initiative in Tel Aviv." Itzik, bleary-eyed, leaps out of bed. Does this sound like the start of a comic sketch? That depends on who you ask. This scenario really did take place, though in a different language.

About 250 Russian-speakers from around the country came to the Tzavta conference hall in Tel Aviv about two weeks ago for a symposium by backers of the Geneva Initiative. Young and old came, veterans and newcomers, most of them center-to-right in their political orientation, in some cases very far to the right. With endless patience they listened to the analyses by Meretz MK Yossi Beilin and the Palestinian partner, Sufyan Abu Zaydeh, and they also asked a great many questions. It is hard to think of any other group of citizens in Israel who would choose to spend one of the last sunny Saturdays this way.

No, they didn't leave in a convoy from there to help Palestinians harvest olives. They left mainly knowing more, even if not agreeing more. The journalists among them covered the event with professional objectivity.

"That's my job, and it's taken for granted," summed up Larissa Zimin, a journalist who immigrated to Israel only three years ago. Indeed, it is a long way from the publication of the Geneva Initiative in the Russian press under the headline: "Wipe your bottom with the paper of the agreement."

About 250 Russian-speakers at Tzavta are more of a social than a political phenomenon. "The new generation of (Russian-speaking) Israelis is less tired and is characterized by a higher level of politicization than the veteran population," says Dr. Zeev Khenin, an expert on the Russian sector from Bar-Ilan University. "When a less paternalistic encounter comes along, at which they aren't there to teach us how to use the toilet or to market some product, but rather [give] food for thought, there is a lot of curiosity. Apart from that, many of us are, after all, looking for a reason to argue. We have a culture of arguing, and there aren't all that many platforms from which to argue."

In this cultural context, the Geneva Initiative has two clear advantages. The more important has to do with the fact that it is not a political party. The meeting with the Russian-speakers did not have the character of voter recruitment and did not end with an admonition about which ballot slip to put in the box, which leaves a sour taste. Its second advantage is the long absence of the peace camp from the Russian-speaking arena. But the Geneva Initiative people have not given up on addressing this public, even if it is hardly profitable.

With unconcealed satisfaction the director-general of the Geneva Initiative, Gadi Baltiansky, pulls from a drawer in his office a sheaf of press clippings, 55 reports published in the Russian-language media during the past year. An average of one item a week in the Hebrew press is an achievement his organization can only dream of. The quantity does not necessarily bespeak a sympathetic approach. Some of the articles are highly critical, but reasoned.

During the past year, some 3,000 Russian-speakers have encountered the Geneva Initiative in various frameworks - 29 tours along the separation fence with the unflagging Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli and dozens of conferences, events with immigrant organizations and meetings with the press. According to a comparative survey by the Market Watch research institute,from January 2007 to July 2008, support for the initiative among Russian-speakers increased from 12 percent to 23 percent; in parallel, the number of opponents rose from 34 percent to 45 percent. The most impressive change is in the numbers of those who never heard of the Geneva Initiative, whose percentage dropped from 54 percent to 32 percent during that period. More than two-thirds of the Russian-speakers have formulated an opinion on the subject.

Unexpected results

"The work with the Russians is a strategic decision of ours," says Baltiansky. "It's working, also because we don't have any competition in the peace camp, which has abandoned the arena."

Sometimes it works in funny ways. A journalist who went with people from the initiative organization on a tour of the West Bank wrote to Baltiansky that after she had seen how beautiful the Jewish settlements are, she has decided there is no way she would support giving them to the Arabs.

The questions from the audience change according what's in the news. Once it was the disengagement. Now it is the relations between Hamas and Fatah. Surprisingly, the Russian-speakers take less of an interest in the refugee issue than do veteran Israelis but they ask a lot more about the path of the border.

"The Russians find it hard to understand how there can be a state without borders," says Anna Larin, a prominent advertising woman who immigrated to Israel 18 years ago. She, too, took the trouble to go from Netanya to Tzavta. "This high attendance is clear to me," she said. "People want to feel that they belong, that they are of interest. They are already fed up with the faces of the Russian politicians, and it's also pleasant to have an opportunity to shout at Beilin."

Nonetheless, the person who has helped Beilin penetrate the rightist envelope of the Russian-speakers is the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, MK Avigdor Lieberman, of all people. In the last elections the two went around together like an entertainment team with their programs among Russian-speakers, debated politely and found a common denominator: They were the only ones who were presenting a comprehensive program, a factor that that the Russian-speakers have learned to value even more in a country that, to their mind and to their astonishment, conducts itself without a program.