Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s new book, My Promised Land, The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, is being hailed for its historic sweep and insights into the Israeli experience. Shavit was in Toronto recently, and he discussed his award-winning book with The CJN’s Paul Lungen.
Can you tell us what the book is about, why you wrote it?
I wrote this book because I felt what happened to us is that we’ve lost our narrative. Israel was a narrative before it was an entity. We had a very strong sense of where we were coming from and why there is a need to build a home for the homeless people that we were. And what happened, sadly, over the years is that while Israel physically grew stronger, its sense of meaning and narrative disintegrated in many ways.
So what I tried to do in this book, in my own way, is to rewrite a narrative, to look at the larger picture of our existence.
My point is that we got lost in the friction, in the conflict, in the debates over the territories, the settlements, the religious issues, and we lost sight of the great miracle that Israel is.
The book is about getting the story back. I think the way I do it is by telling the life stories of different Israelis, reflect the different aspect of our lives, the different aspects of our history. And I think by doing it, I want to enable readers who care about Israel to refresh a renewed interest in this country, to see how magical it is, that with all its faults and problems and flaws, how remarkable it is. And really to bring back the love of Israel, especially to those who were alienated by Israeli policies in the last decades.
You talk in your book about Israelis’ existential fear. Are you an optimist or a pessimist about peace with Israel’s neighbours?
My claim is that contemporary Israel is defined by two unique situations. One is occupation. The other is intimidation. And my claim is that while people on the left tend to focus on occupation and ignore intimidation, people on the right tend to emphasize intimidation and ignore occupation. I think the realistic approach called for is to address both, to see that the uniqueness of the Israeli situation is shaped, is defined by these two elements.
On the one hand, we are the one democracy that rules over another people. On the other, we are the only democracy and probably one of the only nations in the world that is really existentially threatened. This is a fundamental feature of our being. Now I’m not saying that peace is impossible, but I think that the conflict between us and our neighbours is a very deep one. I oppose occupation and have to deal with it, but I don’t think this is a conflict over occupation or settlements.
I think it’s a deep conflict that has a historic dimension, and it has to do with the identity of both sides. There are religious elements in it, cultural elements in it. There is the element of tension between a Jewish state and an Islamic world; the conflict or tension between a Jewish nation state and the Arab world; and there is the conflict between the Zionist state and the Palestinians. All these create a conflict that I don’t think can be easily resolved.
I think a realistic approach to peace is needed. And my approach is basically the following: try what [U.S.] Secretary [of State John] Kerry is now trying, which is to achieve a final status agreement, but don’t wait for this to happen.
If I were in power, I would prepare in advance Plan B, a different approach which is based not on solving all the core issues, but rather to move forward in a sort of gradual, cautious, creative process where we gradually deal with occupation while the Palestinians gradually build their state.
So if peace cannot be achieved this year, I think we should not fall into despair, but we should try to design some new peace approach [in] which we pull out gradually from parts of the West Bank and give the Palestinians more and more space, geographic space, economic space, political space. So at every given moment the Palestinians will have more than they had before, but they will not have everything.
And then hopefully, after we go through this long process, we are able to go for the final reconciliation, which I doubt we can reach right now.
Why would the Palestinians have any incentive to negotiate a peace agreement if you’re handing over territories and powers? Is there reciprocity?
I support the prime minister’s position, unlike many of my peers and friends. I think the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. It is very important, because it will signal to Palestinian youngsters that we Jews belong on the land.
If an interim agreement cannot be achieved, I think this kind of situation that moves us toward a two-state solution to create two states, improves our position and improves their position.
It improves our position because it deals with the moral issue of occupation, it deals with the demographic problem of controlling another people, and mainly with a problem Israel has now with its legitimacy.
Do you see a danger that your approach will heighten divisions within Israel?
I think the point is there is another people there and we cannot ignore that. If we ignore that, we actually risk the entire Zionist enterprise. If you look today at the new world we are facing, Israel has three main external threats. The first one is Iran. I’m very firm on the Iranian issue. I think it’s a dramatic threat.
The second one is occupation, which is killing us quietly and gradually.
And the third one, which has to do with occupation, is Israel’s legitimacy. If we are to regain our international legitimacy, we must deal with occupation. That would also enable us to deal with Iran.
I’m not one of those people on the left who are into settler-bashing. I respect many of the settlers. But I think they made a fundamental historic mistake, although they had the best intentions. They totally failed in convincing the world that there is justification for their endeavour. As a result, they are putting Israel’s legitimacy in jeopardy. They do not mean that, they do not want that, but this is the outcome. If we do not deal with occupation, we will lose international support, and when we need it to deal with the real existential issues, like Iran and others, we will have no allies.
Can you comment on the social protest movement in Israel a few summers ago?
I think that of all the world’s social protest movements, Israel’s was the most remarkable. It was civilized, it was moderate, it was reasonable. It had very wide support.
I saw in this really the awakening of Israeli civil society. I think we have a great people, I think we have flawed politics. And this was a summer-long occasion where you saw the eruption of the power and the energy of civil society in Israel, demanding deep change.
I think there was a conceptual revolution. The mindset of Israelis has changed. I think in the future we will see new forces that will emerge from that movement. So, no it wasn’t an event of one summer, although the demonstrators are not out in the street, they really changed our psyche.
The capitalist revolution in Israel went too far and we let the market be our ruler. Here was a demand to have the state back, not like extreme socialism, but to strike the right balance with I would say is a kind of social democratic undertone to it. It was proof of the strength and vitality of Israeli society, and I think we’ll see more coming as a result of it.