'Peace With the Palestinians Is Possible': Meet Israel's Last Optimist

Uri Ashi can be seen on a Tel Aviv bridge every Friday afternoon, trying to convince passersby and motorists that peace with the Palestinians is still possible. Now he has a new book on the subject

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Uri Ashi standing on Hahalakha Bridge, Tel Aviv, next to his giant dove doll last month.
Uri Ashi standing on Hahalakha Bridge, Tel Aviv, next to his giant dove doll last month.
Iddo Shejter
Iddo Shejter

On any given Friday afternoon, one man and his giant dove on crutches can be seen on a Tel Aviv bridge hovering above the busy Ayalon freeway, trying to convince anyone willing to listen that the two-state solution is still achievable.

Uri Ashi, 45, is an illustrator and animator by trade, though he says that over the past few years he’s also become an author and researcher. In 2015, he started standing with the giant, handicapped dove doll on Hahalakha Bridge, along with a Hebrew sign reading “Peace with the Palestinians is possible.” He calls the sign the “TL;DR” version of his book, “Hatikva: The Illustrated Guide to Solving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” which was published in Hebrew last year.

Ashi’s activism started after taking a course on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taught by Dr. Shaul Arieli, a retired colonel who was also part of several Israeli negotiation teams during past rounds of peace talks with the Palestinians. Despite having considered himself well-informed on the issue beforehand, the course turned the illustrator’s worldview upside down.

He says Arieli demonstrated to him how, although past rounds of negotiations fell apart, compromises had been reached on the core issues of the conflict and that all that was left to do was to fill in the final details and have an agreement be signed. Ashi was surprised to learn that as far back as 1988, the Palestinians have been willing to negotiate with Israel on the grounds of two states for two peoples. He figured that if he didn’t know this, most of the public must not as well.

That’s how he got to standing on the bridge in north Tel Aviv, inspired by the actions of lone protesters – most notably Amir Haskel, who started demonstrating on bridges across Israel to protest against then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about six years ago.

Initially, Ashi went to Hahalakha Bridge – the nearest to his home – more for the sake of research. His goal was to learn what he was up against if he were to start advocating for a two-state solution. His sign and his giant handicapped dove, which symbolizes the damaged peace process, drew the attention of pedestrians and drivers who wanted to give Ashi a piece of their mind. He even made it to the Facebook page of far-right influencer The Shadow. 

However, after a few visits to the bridge, he realized that the same arguments against a two-state solution were being made again and again. Eventually, Ashi figured he should put his drawing skills to good use and write an illustrated guide on how to solve the conflict.

For two years, he left his job so he could totally dedicate himself to the project. He sat in libraries and read hundreds of books on the issue and interviewed researchers and historians. His book is aimed at an Israeli audience and strives to convince readers that, despite the widely held belief that the two-state solution is dead, peace with the Palestinians is actually still possible. Of the 3,000 copies he has sold so far, he testifies that quite a few readers have written him saying that he’s made them reconsider what they previously thought about the conflict.

In the book, Ashi picks apart those talking points which he heard over and over on the bridge that peace with the Palestinians is infeasible: Everything from the perceived Palestinian “stage program” – which purportedly calls for agreements to be signed with Israel as a tactic to enable more effective armed resistance at a later point – to the claim that the Palestinians are a fake people and therefore don’t deserve a state.

Around the time Ashi was taking Arieli’s course, he also stopped smoking. In order to quit, he read “Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking.” He then attempted to incorporate Carr’s methods into his own peace advocacy.

For example, Carr explicitly avoids scaring people about all of smoking’s health risks. Ashi does the same and, unlike many retired Israeli generals, avoids grim predictions of what will happen if Israel doesn’t separate from the Palestinians. He says during his conversations on the bridge, he found that scaring peace detractors just further entrenches their beliefs.

The main thing Ashi took away from Carr’s book, though, was the concept of hope: the most important thing when attempting to change a person’s mind is instilling the belief that change, whether it be in smoking habits or a decades-old conflict, is possible – and not even that difficult to achieve.

That’s why he gave his book the title “Hatikva” (“The Hope”), because he believes that a rational analysis of the history, explained through humorous language and illustrations, will instill in the reader hope that the conflict can be solved.

Ashi also tries to explain psychologically how the Israeli public came to believe that peace is impossible despite his analysis showing otherwise. He says that though he believes the conflict has been solvable since the late 1980s, what still needs to be done is for the public to view it as such – otherwise the paradigm that was useful when the conflict was unsolvable hurts the prospects for peace when it is. For instance, he says, while it is necessary to hate your enemy during times of conflict in order to be able to effectively fight them, that same thinking inhibits effective negotiations. Until a paradigm shift occurs, which is what Ashi is attempting with his book, the conflict cannot be solved.

Uri Ashi on Hahalakha Bridge last month. The book "Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking" is an unlikely inspiration for his one-man stance.

Targeting the left

Despite being secular, Ashi dedicates one chapter to trying to convince religious readers about the two-state solution by using theological arguments. While he admits that overturning deeply held religious beliefs is an exceptionally difficult task, he says some religious readers have written to him that they were impressed by the chapter’s arguments. He hopes that at the very least, he planted the first seeds of skepticism in the minds of some readers.

However, Ashi’s main target audience is actually the Israeli left. Past failures in negotiations with the Palestinians have caused the pro-peace camp to be in a constant retreat mode regarding its views on the conflict. Ashi wants to reconvince the left of the strength of its earlier position and not be ashamed of putting it at the center of its political messaging.

The decline of support for a two-state solution has seen alternative ideas take center stage in the public discourse. Chief among these is Micah Goodman’s idea of “shrinking the conflict,” which has seemingly been adopted as policy by the current government. The concept calls for Israel to make moves that will better the lives of Palestinians without giving them complete statehood.

Ashi isn’t convinced. “I really appreciate Micah Goodman – I think his books are amazing – but I don’t understand how he expects this plan to work. As long as the insight that peace is possible doesn’t exist, it’s impossible to have somebody make some kind of progress [toward peace]. On the contrary, the most rational thing for a person who doesn’t believe peace is possible to do is to further entrench themselves within their fanatic right-wing views,” he says.

As for the one-state solution, Ashi doesn’t see any historical precedent for two groups as conflicted as the Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live together harmoniously. This solution has become increasingly popular among Palestinians who have given up on the peace process. Though Ashi hopes someone on the other side will do the same advocacy as he does, perhaps even on a corresponding bridge in Ramallah, he also notes a correlation in polls between Israeli efforts at negotiations and Palestinian support for a two-state solution.

He plans to have the book translated into English and to develop some kind of video format for passing on the book’s contents so he can reach audiences less likely to read as well. Meanwhile, the occasional car stuck in a traffic jam beneath will honk at his sign and his dove, either to show support or disgust, and he’ll stand patiently, ready to convince any passerby that he isn’t crazy but just really hopeful.

Doves, not hawks: Uri Ashi on Hahalakha Bridge last month.

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