Our correspondent meets the legendary Uri Avnery, who roars out against Netanyahu and his government and foresees growing ethnic strife in Israel
By Robert Fisk, The Independent
November 23, 2012
Old Uri Avnery is 89 but he’s still a fighter. In fact, the famed writer is still one of the great old leftist warriors of Israel, still demanding peace with the Palestinians, peace with Hamas and a Palestinian state on the old ’67 borders – give or take a few square miles. He still believes Israel could have peace tomorrow or next week. If Netanyahu wanted it. “The misfortune of being an incorrigible optimist,” is how he describes his predicament. Or perhaps an illusionist?
He’s still the same guy I last came across 30 years ago, playing chess with Yasser Arafat in the ruins of Beirut. White hair and white beard now, and roaring his words – he’s a wee bit deaf these days – with the same rage and humour as ever. I ask Avnery what Netanyahu and his government are doing. What was this Gaza war meant to achieve? The eyes sparkle and he spits out his reply.
“You are presuming you know what they want and you presume they want peace – and therefore that their policy is stupid or insane. But if you assume they don’t give a damn for peace but want a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, then what they are doing makes sense up to a point. The trouble is that what they do want is leading into a cul de sac – because we already have now one state in all of historic Palestine, three quarters of it the Jewish state of Israel and one quarter the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
Apartheid in Israel
Avnery speaks in perfect sentences and my pen skids over the page until it runs out of ink and I have to steal one of his.
“If they annex the West Bank as they have annexed East Jerusalem,” he says. “It doesn’t make much of a difference. The trouble is that in this territory which is now dominated by Israel, there are about 49 per cent Jews and 51 per cent Arabs – and this balance will become larger every year because the natural increase on the Arab side is far greater than the natural increase on our side. So the real question is: if this policy goes on, what kind of state will it be? As it is today, it is an Apartheid state, a full apartheid in the occupied territories and a growing apartheid in Israel – and if this goes on, it will be full apartheid throughout the country, incontestably.”
The Avnery argument goes bleakly on. If the Arab inhabitants are granted civil rights, there will be an Arab majority in the Knesset and the first thing they will do is change the name ‘Israel’ and name the state ‘Palestine’, “and the whole exercise of the past 130 years has come to naught.” Mass ethnic cleansing is impossible in the 21st century, he says – or hopes – but there is no discussion about the demography.
“There is a suppression. We are supposed to push this out of our consciousness. Not one single political party speaks about this problem. The word ‘peace’ does not appear in any election manifesto, except for the little Meretz party – neither the Opposition nor the Coalition. The word ‘peace’ has completely disappeared.
“And The Left in Israel? They have been more or less hibernating – since the Left was killed off by Ehud Barak in 2000. He came back from Camp David – as self-proclaimed leader of the ‘peace camp’ – and told us ‘we have no partner for peace’. This was a death blow. It was not Netanyahu who said this, but the leader of the Labour Party. This was the end of Peace Now.”
Then the optimist resurfaces as the clouds darken the sea beyond Avnery’s seventh floor apartment in Tel Aviv. “When I met Arafat in 1982, the terms were all there. The Palestinian minimum and maximum terms are the same: a Palestinian state next to Israel, comprising the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as a capital, small exchanges of land and a symbolic solution to the refugee problem. But this lies on the table like a wilted flower. It is looking at us every day… we have already given up the Gaza Strip – but in order to take hold of the West Bank – the same way (Menachem) Begin gave up all of Sinai in order to get all of Palestine.”
Avnery is convinced that Hamas would accept the same – he lectured to them in Gaza in 1993, “standing there, facing 500 black-bearded sheikhs, speaking to them in Hebrew – I was applauded and invited to lunch.”
He has met other Hamas delegates since. For them, Palestine is a ‘waqf’, it cannot be handed over, but a truce can be sanctified by God. “If they offered a truce for 50 years, that is personally enough for me.” Sure, says Avnery, the Hamas manifesto wants to destroy Israel. “But abolishing a manifesto is a very difficult thing to do – did the Russians ever abandon the Communist manifesto? The PLO did theirs.”
And so it goes on. Peace groups, small but hard-working – Gush Shalom, the Peace Now project monitoring the settlements, the Fighters for Peace (ex-Israeli soldiers and ex-Palestinian fighters) and bereaved parents – are preparing for the January elections. Interestingly, Avnery believes that the damning – but very damned – Goldstone report on the bloodletting of the 2008-2009 Gaza war was what prevented a ground invasion this time round.
“Goldstone can be very satisfied – he really saved a lot of lives.” There are more than a few liberals in Israel who hope that Uri Avnery lives for another 89 years.
By Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom
November 23, 2012
THE MANTRA of this round was Once And For All.
“We must put an end to this (the rockets, Hamas, the Palestinians, the Arabs?) Once and For All!” – this cry from the heart was heard dozens of times daily on TV from the harassed inhabitants of Israel’s battered towns and villages in the South.
It has displaced the slogan which dominated several decades: “Bang And Finish!”
It did not quite work.
THE BIG winner emerging from the cloud is Hamas.
Until this round, Hamas had a powerful presence in the Gaza Strip, but practically no international standing. The international face of the Palestinian people was Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian National Authority.
Operation Pillar of Cloud has given the Hamas mini-state in Gaza wide international recognition. (Pillar of Cloud is the official Hebrew name, though the army spokesman decreed that the English name, for foreign consumption, should be Pillar of Defense.) Heads of state and droves of other foreign dignitaries made their pilgrimage to the Strip.
First was the powerful and immensely rich Emir of Qatar, owner of Aljazeera. He was the first head of state ever to enter the Gaza strip. Then came the Egyptian prime minister, the Tunisian foreign minister, the secretary of the Arab League and the collected Arab foreign ministers (except the one from Ramallah.)
In all diplomatic deliberations, Gaza was treated as a de facto state, with a de facto government (Hamas). The Israeli media were no exception. It was clear to Israelis that any deal, to be effective, must be concluded with Hamas.
Within the Palestinian people, the standing of Hamas shot sky-high. The Gaza Strip alone, smaller than an average American county, has stood up to the mighty Israeli war machine, one of the largest and most efficient in the world. It has not succumbed. The military outcome will be at best a draw.
A draw between tiny Gaza and the powerful Israel means a victory for Gaza.
Who remembers now Ehud Barak’s proud declaration in the middle of the war: “We shall not stop until Hamas gets on its knees and begs for a cease-fire!”*
WHERE DOES that leave Mahmoud Abbas? Actually, nowhere.
For a simple Palestinian, whether in Nablus, Gaza or Beirut, the contrast is glaring. Hamas is courageous, proud, upright, while Fatah is helpless, submissive and despised. Pride and honor play a central role in Arab culture.
After more than half a century of humiliation, any Palestinian who stands up against the occupation is the hero of the Arab masses, in and outside the country. Abbas is identified only with the close cooperation of his security forces with the hated Israeli occupation army. And the most important fact: Abbas has nothing to show for it.
If Abbas could at least show a major political achievement for his pains, the situation might be different. The Palestinians are a sensible people, and if Abbas had come even one step closer to Palestinian statehood, most Palestinians would probably have said: he may not be glamorous, but he delivers the goods.
But the opposite is happening. The violent Hamas is achieving results, the non-violent Abbas is not. As a Palestinian told me: “He (Abbas) has given them (the Israelis) everything, quiet and security, and what did [or “does”] he get in return? They spit in his face!”
This round will only reinforce a basic Palestinian conviction: “Israelis understand only the language of force!” (Israelis, of course, say exactly the same about the Palestinians.)
If at least the US had allowed Abbas to achieve a UN resolution recognizing Palestine as a non-member state, he might have held his own against Hamas. But the Israeli government is determined to prevent this by all available means. Barack Obama’s decision, even after re-election, to block the Palestinian effort is a direct support for Hamas and a slap in the face of the “moderates”. Hillary Clinton’s perfunctory visit to Ramallah this week was seen in this context.
Looked at from the outside, this looks like sheer lunacy. Why undermine the “moderates” who want and are able to make peace? Why elevate the “extremists”, who are opposed to peace?
The answer is openly expressed by Avigdor Lieberman, now Netanyahu’s official political No. 2: he wants to destroy Abbas in order to annex the West Bank and clear the way for the settlers.
AFTER HAMAS, the big winner is Mohamed Morsi.
This is an almost incredible tale. When Morsi was elected as the president of Egypt, official Israel was in hysteria. How terrible! The Islamist extremists have taken over the most important Arab country! Our peace treaty with our largest neighbor is going down the drain!
US reactions were almost the same.
And now – less than four months later – we hang on every word Morsi utters. He is the man who has put an end to the mutual killing and destruction! He is the great peacemaker! He is the only person who can mediate between Israel and Hamas! He must guarantee the cease-fire agreement!
Can it be? Can this be the same Morsi? The same Muslim Brotherhood?
The 61 year old Morsi (the full name is Mohamed Morsi Isa al-Ayyad. Isa being the Arab form of Jesus, who is regarded in Islam as a prophet) is a complete novice on the world stage. Yet at this moment, all the world’s leaders rely on him.
When I wholeheartedly welcomed the Arab Spring, I had people like him in mind. Now almost all the Israeli commentators, ex-generals and politicians, who uttered dire warnings at the time, are lauding his success in achieving a cease-fire.
THROUGHOUT THE operation I did what I always do in such situations: I switched constantly between Israeli TV and Aljazeera. Sometimes, when my thoughts wander, I am unsure for a moment which of the two I am looking at.
Women weeping, wounded being carried away, homes in shambles, children’s shoes strewn around, families packing and fleeing. Here and there. Mirror images. Though, of course, Palestinian casualties were 30 times higher than the Israeli ones – partly because of the incredible success of the Iron Dome interception missiles and home shelters, while the Palestinians were practically defenseless.
On Wednesday I was invited to air my views on Israel’s Channel 2, the most popular (and patriotic) Israeli outlet. The invitation was of course withdrawn at the last moment. Had I been on air, I would have posed to my compatriots one simple question:
Was It Worthwhile?
All the suffering, the killed, the injured, the destruction, the hours and days of terror, the children in trauma?
And, I might add, the endless TV coverage around the clock, with legions of ex-generals appearing on the screen and declaiming the message sheet of the prime minister’s office. And the blood-curdling threats of politicians and other nincompoops, including the son of Ariel Sharon, who proposed flattening neighborhoods in Gaza City, or even better, the whole Strip.
Now that it is over, we are almost exactly where we were before. The operation, commonly referred to in Israel as “another round”, was indeed round – leading nowhere than to where it started.
Hamas will be firmly in control of the Gaza Strip, if not more firmly. The Gazans will hate Israel even more than before. Many of the inhabitants of the West Bank, who throughout the war came out in their thousands in demonstrations for Hamas, will vote in even greater numbers for Hamas in the next elections. Israeli voters will vote in two months as they intended to vote anyhow, before the whole thing started.
Each of the two sides is now celebrating its great victory. If they organized just one joint celebration, a lot of money could be saved.
WHAT ARE the political conclusions?
The most obvious one is: talk with Hamas. Directly. Face to face.
Yitzhak Rabin once told me how he came to the conclusion that he must talk with the PLO: after years of opposing it, he realized that they were the only force that counted. “So it was ridiculous to talk with them through intermediaries.”
The same is now true for Hamas. They are there. They will not go away. It is ridiculous for the Israeli negotiators to sit in one room at the Egyptian intelligence service HQ near Cairo, while the Hamas negotiators sit in another room, just a few meters away, with the courteous Egyptians going to and fro.
Concurrently, activate the effort towards peace. Seriously.
Save Abbas. As of now, he has no replacement. Give him an immediate victory to balance the Hamas achievements. Vote for the Palestinian application for statehood in the UN General Assembly.
Move towards peace with the entire Palestinian people, including Fatah and Hamas – so we can really put an end to the violence,
ONCE AND FOR ALL!
[*] “If Hamas goes down on its knees tomorrow and begs us to stop, we’ll consider stopping. It also depends on the other side. Meanwhile, as long as this is not happening we’re going ahead.”
Uri Avnery, born 1923, was a teenage member of Irgun and later a Knesset member serving 1965–74 and 1979–81