Israel Story

The Dreamer

David Ben Shabat hates being called a prophet. As he sees it, he’s just a guy who stumbled upon a deep truth and wants to share it with the people. But, come to think of it, isn’t that precisely the definition of a prophet?

October 13, 2020

Over the last 27 years, much has been said about the Oslo Accords, that famous set of agreements—brokered in complete secrecy in Scandinavia—that was meant to pave the way to a permanent peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians: Countless books and articles have been written, TV specials and movies have been produced, and even a Tony Award-winning play, Oslo, was staged. Yet none of these accounts mentioned David Ben Shabat, a man whose own story is, in surprising ways, completely intertwined with those accords that put the Middle East on an entirely new trajectory.

Born in 1963 into what was only half-jokingly known as a “mixed marriage,” Ben Shabat was—almost—the right man at the right time. Long before the term “impact investment” was coined, he dreamed up a revolutionary idea to collect private and public investments to provide seed funding for businesses jointly run by Arabs and Jews. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was on board. So was Palestinian leader Faisal Husseini. And they were not alone: François Mitterrand, Henry Kissinger, Abdullah Nimar Darwish, and many other public intellectuals, diplomats, politicians, and business tycoons were all enthusiastic supporters of Ben Shabat’s innovative “Shem Fund.”

Ben Shabat was on his way to become a household name, the father of the world’s first peace fund, a conflict resolution guru. But that never happened.

Nowadays, David and his wife, Tali, live in Har Amasa, at the edge of the desert and just south of the Green Line. But he isn’t bitter, nor does his story end in defeat. After all, what kind of a prophet would he be if he just gave up? If governments didn’t believe that peace would come through grassroots business partnerships, Ben Shabat would make his own life into a proof-of-concept of his now defunct multi-billion-dollar dream.

For more than a year, producer Skyler Inman has been interviewing Ben Shabat. She has heard him talk about a joint Semitic identity, linguistic affinities, the distant past, and the faraway future. But most of all, she has heard why this veteran visionary is still unwaveringly hopeful.

Joel Shupack scored and sound-designed the episode, with original music and additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Sela Waisblum created the mix. The end song, “Migdal Bavel” (Tower of Babylon) is by Sistem Ali.

Listen to the episode here, or download it from Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Spotify. You can hear all of Israel Story’s episodes in English here and in Hebrew here.

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