Indestructible: Israel, Palestine and hope
Uri Avnery celebrated his 90th birthday in September 2013
As he turns 90, the war veteran, former MP and celebrated peace activist tells Ben Lynfield he still advocates a Palestinian state, and that one is possible in his lifetime
Ben Lynfield, The Independent
October 31, 2013
As a 26-year-old soldier wounded towards the end of Israel’s War of Independence, Uri Avnery had plenty of time to think about the meaning of the 1947-49 fighting from which Israelis gained a state and Palestinians became refugees.
He reached the conclusion that there must be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea was dismissed or ignored by mainstream opinion and leaders at the time and for decades to come, but now, as Mr Avnery marks his 90th birthday, there is a near international consensus on the peace maxim he helped formulate, with even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rhetorically accepting it.
For more than six decades, Mr Avnery has been in the vanguard of the Israeli peace camp, a touchstone of dovishness in Israeli discourse with his sharp denunciations of excesses by the military and championing of rights for the Arab minority, which lived under military rule until 1966. His criticism of the occupation and the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip came early, before it became fashionable, and to this day he scorns the effort to expand Israel and the attempt to rename the occupied territories by the biblical names Judea and Samaria. “I call it Judea and malaria,” he says.
Yet Mr Avnery never crossed the line into anti-Zionism and in that respect remains part of the Israeli establishment he so vociferously criticised, at once a dove and an Israeli patriot.
The young Uri Avnery, fighting for Israel but becoming convinced he had to fight for peace.
“I came out of the [1947-49] war totally convinced that: one, we need peace; two, there exists a Palestinian people; and, three, that making peace with the Palestinians means to have a Palestinian state next to Israel,” he recalls in an interview with The Independent to mark his birthday, which fell last month but which he celebrated on Monday by joining a panel discussion on the topic “Will Israel Exist 90 Years From Now?”.
During the interview, Mr Avnery is fiery in his rejection of the view that establishing a Palestine alongside Israel is becoming impossible as a result of Israeli settlement expansion on the territory of the would-be Palestinian state. But he is also markedly uncertain about when and how his country would come around to enabling it to happen. “As long as people believe this can go on forever or there is no alternative, there will be no peace,” he says.
His fingers are crooked, possibly because they were broken by stick-wielding assailants in 1953 after he wrote an article condemning young army officer Ariel Sharon’s brutal raid in the West Bank village of Qibya. Sixty-nine Palestinians died, most of them women and children who were blown up by troops inside their houses.
“He said he didn’t know there were people inside the houses, which is nonsense,” Mr Avnery says in his Tel Aviv apartment adorned with a picture of him interviewing PLO leader Yasser Arafat during the siege of Beirut in 1982 – Arafat’s first meeting with an Israeli. That was a highlight of his life but today Mr Avnery’s outlook is on the defensive in Israel. Advocates for territorial withdrawal are weak and “at this point there are no effective Israeli forces in favour of peace,” he adds.
Still, Mr Avnery insists the continuing de facto annexation of the West Bank, which overshadows the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, is reversible. He adamantly denies that a critical mass of settlers is being reached – there are now 550,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – that will make an Israeli pull-out impossible. “A million and a half French settlers were evacuated from Algeria in a week with no government help and no alternative housing,” he says. “De Gaulle just announced the date the French army will leave. And we are very far from a million settlers. If you don’t include Jerusalem, which is a different problem, and if you [subtract] those living in settlements which will fall under territorial exchange, you come to a small number, less than a hundred thousand. This is nothing frightening if we have a government that wants to do it like Sharon did in Gaza,” he says, referring to Israel’s 2005 unilateral Israel pull-out of troops and settlers seen as being aimed at forestalling the need for concessions in the West Bank.
In Mr Avnery’s view, war, international isolation or growing fears of Arab demographic primacy could prompt those concessions to eventually be made. “If there is a major break with the US this could be a dramatic event,” he says. “People don’t care about Europe but everyone knows Israel is totally dependent on the US”.
Uri Avnery with Yasser Arafat, 1982
Mr Avnery began advocating a Palestinian state in HaOlam HaZeh, the magazine he founded in 1950, when the West Bank and Gaza were under Jordanian and Egyptian control respectively. As soon as Israel occupied them in 1967 he called, as a maverick member of parliament, for those areas to become an independent Palestine, but the establishment preferred to stay in those territories or depict Jordan as the address for a peace settlement. Mr Avnery says his motives in espousing Palestinian statehood were and are based on Israel’s interests. “It was primarily because Israel needs peace, it needs reconciliation and acceptance in the region and we’ll never have it without a Palestinian state.” he says.
Mr Avnery’s most dramatic act in pursuit of the two-state solution was to interview Arafat in 1982, a move he said was aimed to humanise the Palestinian leader and the PLO in Israeli eyes and forestall a bloody invasion of West Beirut by Sharon, the defence minister. Rightists called for him to be tried for treason, but he believes this meeting paved the way for the Oslo Agreement that was clinched by a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993.
Most Israelis revile Arafat and his memory on the grounds that he ostensibly rejected generous peace offers at the Camp David summit in 2000 and that he allowed or encouraged suicide bombings after the outbreak of the second intifada. But Mr Avnery says the Palestinian leader was intent on a peace deal based on a two-state solution and would have mustered the support of his people for it. “He was one of the great leaders of the century,” he says.
Mr Avnery has no patience for calls among academics and others for a one-state solution – a binational state between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan for Israelis and Palestinians.
“It’s nonsense,” he says. “Do you imagine Israelis and Palestinians serving in the same army, the same police force?… The very idea is ridiculous. Look at the world…. Dozens of states have broken apart: the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Serbia, and Sudan, and others are on the point of break-up: the UK, Belgium and Canada. For most people abroad the one-state solution is just a euphemism for the abolition of the state of Israel. And it will not happen because there are no takers in Israel or Palestine.”
Danny Dayan, foreign relations co-ordinator for Yesha, the West Bank settlement council, reflects the opinion of many legislators in Israel’s ruling Likud party when he says the two-state solution “was never achievable”. “At 90, Avnery still believes in fantasies. [He] knows Palestinians and is aware of their… reluctance to accept Israel as a Jewish state,” he says. Mr Dayan adds that the solution with the Palestinians will lie not in dividing territory but in a “functional division of responsibility”.
But Mr Avnery insists there is still a chance he may live to see an independent Palestine emerge alongside Israel. “When I want to evoke laughter,” he says, “I say I’ve decided to stay alive till it happens. People say this guarantees a long life for me.”
By Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
November 02, 2013
On the occasion of my 90th birthday, a panel discussion of eminent historians took place in Tel Aviv’s Tsavta hall on the question: “Will Israel Exist in Another 90 Years?” There follows a slightly shortened version of my own remarks. A full video of the discussion with English translation will be published as soon as possible.
WILL ISRAEL exist in another 90 years? The very question is typical of Israel. No one would take it seriously in England or Germany, or even in other states born from immigration, like Australia or the USA.
Yet here, people speak of “existential dangers” all the time. A Palestinian state is an existential danger. The Iranian bomb is an existential danger. Why? They will have their bomb, we have our bomb, there will be a “balance of terror”. So what?
There is something in our national character that fosters self-doubt, uncertainty. The Holocaust? Perhaps an unconscious sense of guilt? A result of eternal war, or even the reason for it?
LET ME state right from the beginning: Yes, I believe Israel will exist in 90 years. The question is: what kind of Israel? Will it be a country your great-great-great-grandsons and daughters will be proud of? A state they will want to live in?
On the day the state was founded, I was 24 years old. My comrades and I, soldiers in our new army, didn’t think the event was very important. We were preparing ourselves for the battle that was to take place that night, and the speeches of politicians in Tel-Aviv did not really interest us. We knew that if we won the war there would be a state, and if not, there would be neither a state nor us.
I am not a nostalgic person. I have no nostalgia for Israel before (the war of) 1967, as some of my colleagues here have expressed. A lot was wrong then, too. Huge amounts of Arab property were expropriated. But let’s not look back. Let’s look at Israel as it is now, and ask ourselves: where do we go from here?
IF ISRAEL continues on its present course, there will be disaster. The first stage will be apartheid. It already exists in the occupied territories, and it will spread to Israel proper. The descent into the abyss will not be dramatic or precipitous, It will be gradual, almost imperceptible.
Slowly pressure on Israel will grow. Demographics will do their work. Sometime before the 90 years are up, Israel will be compelled to grant civil rights to the Palestinians. There will be an Arab majority. Israel will be an Arab-majority state.
Some people may welcome that. But it will be the end of the Zionist dream. Zionism will become a historic episode. This state will be just another country where Jews live as a minority – those who remain here.
There are those who say: “There just is no solution”. If so, we should all obtain foreign passports.
Some dream of the so-called “one-state solution”. Well, during the last half-century, many states in which diverse nations lived together have broken apart. A partial list: the Soviet Union, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, then Serbia, Czechoslovakia, Sudan. There has not been a single instance of two nations freely uniting in one state. Not one.
I AM not afraid of any military threat. There is no real danger. In our time, no country possessing nuclear arms can be destroyed by force. We are quite able to defend ourselves.
Rather, I am afraid of internal dangers: the implosion of our intellectual standards, the proliferation of a parasitical orthodox establishment, and especially emigration. All over the world, people are becoming more and more mobile. Families disperse. Zionism is a two-way street. If you can be a good Jew in Los Angeles as well as in Tel Aviv, why stay here?
The connection between Israel and the world’s Jews will become weaker. That is natural. We are a new nation, rooted in this country. That is the real aim. Our relations with the Diaspora will be like, say, between Australia and England.
I WANT to raise a basic question: will nationalism itself survive? Will it be supplanted by new collective modes of organization and ideologies?
I think nationalism will continue to exist. In the last century, no power has succeeded in overcoming it. The internationalist Soviet Union has collapsed and left nothing behind but a rampant, racist nationalism. Communism succeeded only when it took a ride on nationalism, like in Vietnam and China. Religion succeeded when it took a hike on nationalism, like in Iran.
Wherein lies the power of nationalism? It seems that the human being needs a sense of belonging, belonging to a certain culture, tradition, historic memories (real or invented), homeland, language.
I SHALL pose the question in a different way: will the nation-state survive?
In factual terms, the nation-state is an anachronism. It came into being during the last three centuries because the economic need for a large local market, the military need for an adequate army and so forth required a state the size of, say, France. But now almost all these functions have been taken over by regional blocs like the EU.
This is the reason for a curious phenomenon: while nation-states join larger unions, they themselves break up into smaller units. Scots, Corsicans, the Flemish, Catalonians, Basques, Chechnians, French Canadians and many many more are seeking independence.
Why? A Scotsman thinks that an independent Scotland can join the EU and reap all the benefits, without having to suffer English snobbery. Local nationalism trumps larger nationalism.
SO WHERE shall we be in 90 years, at the beginning of the 22th century?
In the year of my birth, 1923, an Austrian nobleman named Count Nikolaus Coudenhove-Kalergi called for a pan-European movement in order to create the United States of Europe. At the time, a few years after World War I and a few years before World War II, it sounded like a crazy utopia. Now we have the European Union.
At this moment, the United States of the World sounds like a crazy utopia, too. But there is no escape from some kind of world governance. The global economy needs it to function. Global communications make it possible. Global spying is already with us. Only an effective global authority can save our suffering planet, put an end to wars and civil wars, world-wide epidemics and hunger.
Can world governance be democratic? I certainly hope so. World communications make it possible. Your descendents will vote for a world parliament.
Will the nation-state continue to exist in this brave new world? Yes, it will. Much as nation-states do exist in today’s Europe: each with its flag, its anthem, its soccer team, its local administration.
THIS, THEN, is my optimistic vision: Israel, the nation-state of the Israeli people, closely aligned with the nation-state of the Palestinian people, will be a member of a regional Union that will include the Arab states and hopefully Turkey and Iran, as a proud member of the United States of the World.
A democratic, liberal and secular state where your descendants will be proud to proclaim: “I am an Israeli!”
Uri Avnery was born in Germany. His family fled in 1933 from the Nazi regime to Palestine. As a 15-year-old there, he initially joined the radical underground group Irgun to fight against the British administered Mandatory Palestine entity. In 1948, he was severely injured during Israel’s War of Independence. The journalist and peace activist served for decades as the publisher of the news magazine HaOlam HaZeh and served as a member of the Knesset for three legislative periods.
He became well-known for being the first Israeli to meet with the Palestinian PLO head Yasser Arafat in Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War. His decades-long efforts at reconciliation have earned the founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement a plethora of international awards and honors, including the Alternative Nobel Prize. He turned 90 on September 10.