The peace process: Plan A guys and Plan B guys

Ari Shavit’s book My Promised Land has been widely discussed, but I think an important point has been largely ignored. The discussion focuses mostly on Shavit’s view of Israel’s history, but it his conclusions about Israel’s future that I think need further examination.

Let me first say that I found the book to be beautifully written, insightful, enlightening, and brave, and I appreciated both the author’s love of the State of Israel and his empathy for the Palestinians. Mr. Shavit has vast expertise, experience, and knowledge of the situation that I do not share, but his reading of history leads him to a conclusion I cannot accept, stated baldly in his book in the following sentence: “Now there is no hope for peace.”

Shavit distinguishes between 1967 problems (arising out of the occupation) and 1948 problems (arising out of the founding of the State of Israel itself), symbolized by two places: Ofra, an early post-1967 West Bank settlement, and Hulda, an Arab village evacuated by the Israelis in 1948. “Ofra,” he writes, “may have a solution… Hulda has no solution.  Hulda is our fate.” Peace activists, he says, “overlooked the existence of millions of Palestinian refugees whose main concern was not the occupation but a wish to return to their lost Palestine.”

The longing of Palestinian refugees for their ancestral homes is surely profound, as is Jewish longing for places that are vital to our history and religious life, but members of both groups can reach the pragmatic conclusion that compromise, however difficult, is the only possible solution, as many on both sides have already done. Israel cannot control the West Bank by occupation or Gaza by blockade indefinitely without abandoning its Jewish principles, but it can have a democratic, Jewish, internationally recognized, and more secure state by compromising. The Palestinians cannot get back all of their lost homes, but they can have a secure, prosperous Palestinian state by compromising.

Shavit characterizes the concept of peace as follows: “that we could be pure and righteous and beautiful…[that] we would not have to fight for centuries, for we could write a happy ending to our tragedy,” but this is a profound misunderstanding. Peace is not an unattainable utopian state.  Peace, which does in fact exist in the world and always has, is a practical arrangement between parties who have decided that their objectives are best met by means other than war.

He would like to see a two-state solution, but doesn’t believe it is possible in the near term. In this, according to polls, he resembles the majority of Israelis and the majority of Palestinians. Each group wants peace but doesn’t believe the other group does. If the peace process fails, it seems to me, these attitudes may well be the reason. If you want peace but doubt the other side does, the most rational course is to test the other side by making peace proposals. Of course, this is sometimes politically difficult, which is why Secretary Kerry is working so hard to bridge the differences.

Shavit doesn’t propose a course of action in his book, but begins to do so in an interview he gave on NPR’s Fresh Air, where he said, “I’m a Plan B guy. I think that these attempts to go for final status immediately, the chances of success are minimal, the risks involved are enormous. And therefore…they must plan Plan B.”

Pointing to recent history, Shavit suggests that Kerry’s project could fail with consequences that are “dramatic, bordering on the catastrophic.”  The Second Intifada, which closely followed the failure of the Camp David Summit of 2000, might support this. On the other hand, the risk of catastrophe from inaction is also great. The growing settlements, the aging of moderate Palestinian leadership, and shifting demographics may result in the closing of a window of opportunity that will not open again in the foreseeable future.

He doesn’t spell out his Plan B, but suggests its broad outlines: “interim agreements, unilateral steps… a gradual process in which Palestinians will feel that…every month is better than the previous one.” Despite his characterization of the past twenty years as a period of failed attempts at a final status agreement, much of this period was spent on the even more spectacular failure of the incremental and/or unilateral approaches he favors. Gradualism always seems to fail because neither side wants to make the necessary concessions without seeing what it gets in exchange, and I don’t think unilateral steps will sell after their failure in Gaza. Without coordination, you can get chaos, and if each side is reluctant to give anything up even as part of an agreement, why should we expect them to do so without getting something in return? On the other hand, attempts at negotiated final status agreements have, at least, come close to succeeding, particularly in the Abbas-Olmert talks.

I’d have to say that, unlike Shavit, I’m a Plan A guy. Of course having a fallback plan is prudent if you can come up with one that might succeed, but a plan consisting of incremental or unilateral actions doesn’t fit the bill, and I don’t see anything else on the horizon. So we’d better throw everything we can into Plan A, because it’s all we’ve got.

I recommend that you read My Promised Land. When you do, though, I hope you will not accept Shavit’s conclusions about peace uncritically.  Let those of us who want peace keep talking, keep thinking, keep acting until peace is achieved.

About the Author
Martin J. Levine is a volunteer leader at J Street, serving on the Steering Committee of its New Jersey chapter.