11/26/2014 09:05 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

Ari Shavit Wants Plan B for Israel/Palestine


One day after the Jerusalem synagogue attack last week, Ari Shavit, author of My Promised Land, proposed a Plan B -- an alternative peace process that is gradual and informal, and offers a "horizon of hope."

When I spoke with him in Denver, Shavit said that formal talks to attain an all-inclusive Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty have always failed, creating a vacuum that has led to accelerating violence. "It's on the brink now of spiraling out of control."

What happened in Jerusalem is perilous, he said, "first because you see the influence of ISIS. To attack people while they pray in such a barbaric manner -- using meat cleavers -- you can see ISIS penetrating the minds of young people in the region."

The second cause of alarm is that "it's becoming a religious war," Shavit said. Before it was primarily nationalistic, but now, "we have a struggle between religious Jews and religious Muslims over the holy city. And the combination of a religious war with ISIS inspiration is a lethal cocktail."

Shavit repeated this Wednesday night at a sold-out talk capping the Denver JCC's festival of arts, authors, movies and music. Since publication of Shavit's book a year ago, his talks across the country have sold out. The book was an instant phenomenon: a captivating and sometimes startling history of Israel that presents all points of view. It soared onto the best-seller list, was praised and occasionally attacked by people from both the left and right, and won the Natan Book Award and the Jewish Book Award.

I found Shavit to be a great bear of a man with a rich, baritone voice. He's tough-minded but owns an endearing humor and humility. Describing how he wrote the book as a personal historical narrative, he said, "I like my book, and sometimes I even like myself."

In our interview, Shavit said it's not realistic to try for a comprehensive peace agreement now, "although I would love to have one." There's too much violence and instability, he said. "There's no Martin Luther King or Gandhi in the region, and extremists are getting stronger on both sides. We need an alternative peace concept that will give hope and be an organizing principle for stability in the Middle East."

The alternative he proposes is: a two-state dynamic that proceeds gradually, and will lead, in the long term, to a two-state solution. The first step, he said, is for Israel to instigate a settlement freeze. "Settlements are the silent killer of Israel -- they're killing us from within." When he said this at the JCC in Denver, the audience burst into applause. At the same time, Shavit said, Israel should begin a measured withdrawal from specific areas in the West Bank. "Not in a way that risks our security or enables rockets to be fired into Israel," he said. "But in a careful, measured way that will show Palestinians that we're serious about a two-state track."

I told him I can't imagine Netanyahu's government declaring a freeze or withdrawing even one inch from the West Bank.

"You're absolutely right," he said. "As a result of the Gaza War, we've seen a rise in hawkish positions by the Israeli government. But the freeze would be done in the context of continuing to fight terrorism. We would continue being aggressive on that front." He believes that with pressure from the international community and moderate Israelis, the government could be persuaded to move toward the center

The second step, he said, is for Palestine to engage in nation building: developing new cities, industrial zones, and housing projects that will give hope and jobs to Palestinians. He said this would transform the economic situation in the West Bank and show that there's an alternative to radical extremism.

I asked how economic development in Palestine would occur.

"Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states could finance it," he said. "They've funded so many wars, if they'll fund peace for once, then with a few billion dollars (which people in the Gulf will hardly notice) they could create the economic framework for a two-state solution.

He gave the example of Rawabi, the first high-tech urban center being built for Palestinians just a few miles from Ramallah in the West Bank. It's being funded by the government of Qatar in cooperation with a Palestinian business conglomerate, and will include housing for 40,000, eight schools, a giant park, office buildings, a convention center, mosque, theaters and shopping mall.

Shavit said the combination of an Israeli measured withdrawal that doesn't risk its security, and Palestinian nation building will "build peace step by step, slowly defusing tension, until the climate is right for a political agreement."

He said it's crucial for the U.S. and the international community to put pressure on Israel and Palestine to take up this approach.

"That seems unrealistic," I said, "expecting the U.S. and Europe to make this happen."

Shavit disagreed. So far, he said, they've taken an all or nothing approach: trying to reach a perfect peace, or throwing up their hands in despair. "There's a terrible leadership failure in both Israel and Palestine, and it's essential that the U.S. not give up on the region."

He said he's put his proposal on the table. "If people don't like it, let them come up with another idea." But it's urgent, he said, to take action to save the Jewish democratic state. "If we give Palestinians full citizenship and rights, Israel stops being a Jewish state. "If we don't give Palestinians full rights, it's not a democratic state. We must find a third way."