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A Mighty Voice for Peace Has Gone Silent: Uri Avnery, 1923-2018

August 20, 2018

We received word early this morning that Israeli human rights activist and long-time CounterPunch contributor Uri Avnery died in Tel Aviv, following a heart attack.

Avnery, who was one of the first Israelis to call for the creation of a Palestinian state, was 94. He lived a sprawling life. He was born in Germany in 1923 and his family fled to British Palestine a few months after Hitler came to power. As a young man he was dispersed leaflets for the Irgun, a terrorist Zionist organization, and it haunted him for most of his life. Avnery would later play chess with Yasser Arafat and become one of the PLO's most ardent Israeli defenders.

Avnery began sending us his column in 2002, only a few months after CounterPunch went online. And they came, usually on a Friday night, with a faithful regularity. The first column Avnery sent us was "The Ship is on the Way," on the blockade of Gaza. The final one, a scathing indictment of Israel's new "Basic Law," was published on August 6, under the title "Who the Hell are we."
Alexander Cockburn was one of Uri's most faithful readers. Even though Cockburn disagreed with Avnery about the two-state solution and other political matters, he admired the high quality and fluidity of Avnery's prose. Cockburn once told me that Avnery reminded him of his father Claud. Alex marveled at his ability to churn out original and compelling columns even while struggling with illness, age or the loss of his wife.

But most of all we admired Avnery's optimism in the face of despair, which never wavered even in the darkest hours.

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Uri Avnery, Israeli Activist for a Palestinian State, Dead at 94 21.Aug.2018 23:45

by Jonathan Cook / August 20th, 2018

Uri Avnery, a self-confessed former "Jewish terrorist" who went on to become Israel's best-known peace activist, died in Tel Aviv on Monday, following a stroke. He was 94.

As one of Israel's founding generation, Avnery was able to gain the ear of prime ministers, even while he spent decades editing an anti-establishment magazine that was a thorn in their side.

He came to wider attention in 1982 as the first Israeli to meet Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. At the time, Arafat and the PLO were reviled in Israel and much of the west as terrorists.

Famously, Avnery smuggled himself past the Israeli army's siege lines around Beirut to reach Arafat. The pair were reported to have maintained close ties until the Palestinian leader's much speculated upon death in 2004.

Avnery founded Israel's only significant - if small - peace movement, Gush Shalom, in 1993.

He and his followers tried to build political pressure in Israel and abroad, seeking to convert the lip service paid to a two-state solution in the Oslo peace process into a concrete Palestinian state.

A harsh critic of Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government until the end, Avnery filed his final weekly column two weeks ago, lambasting Israel's new Nation-State Basic Law as "semi-fascist".

For Israel's currently besieged peace bloc, Avnery's passing is a significant blow.

Despite tributes from Israeli opposition politicians on Monday, his voice had long ago become marginalised at home. He was the last major public figure still visibly fighting to bring about a two-state solution.

His unyielding positions in support of an Oslo-style peace had begun to appear to many on the Israeli right and left as obsolete, especially after Donald Trump's ascendancy to the White House. Since then, Israel has barely veiled its intention to annex parts of the West Bank, destroying any hope of a Palestinian state.

Avnery publicly rejected a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on a shared, single state for Israelis and Palestinians.

He also opposed a general boycott of Israel, as advocated by the growing international BDS movement. Gush Shalom, however, did support boycotts restricted to the settlements.

Avnery arrived in what was then British-ruled Palestine in 1933, aged 10, emigrating with his family from Germany as the Nazis rose to power.

At 15, he was an young recruit to the Irgun, an underground Jewish militia the British classified as a terrorist organisation. But increasingly disenchanted with its attacks on Palestinian civilians, he quit a few years later.

Avnery fought with the Haganah - later to become the Israel Defence Forces - during the 1948 war that founded a Jewish state on the ruins of the Palestinians' homeland. In later books and articles, he referred to his unit's role in committing war crimes against Palestinians in the Negev region, in modern Israel's south.

During the fighting, he was seriously wounded. His dispatches from the battlefront, later compiled as a book, briefly made him a national hero.

But his popularity soon waned. In his memoir, he described his convalescence as a period of dramatic change in his thinking: "The war totally convinced me there is a Palestinian people, and that peace must be forged first and foremost with them."

It was then, he added, that he became a committed advocate for a Palestinian state.

Through the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, Avnery was best known for publishing his weekly magazine Haolam Hazeh (This World). Its mix of ground-breaking investigations, political muckraking and dissident opinion made him many enemies in the ruling Labour party.

The head of Israel's domestic intelligence service of the time described Avnery as "Government Enemy No 1". The magazine's offices were bombed several times, and Avnery was seriously assaulted. The publication only closed when Avnery started Gush Shalom. The movement on Monday described him as "a far-seeing visionary who pointed to a way which others failed to see".

Though a dissident figure, Avnery had been popular enough on the left to launch a separate political career, winning seats in Israel's parliament in the 1965, 1969 and 1977 elections.

When he made a speech in the parliament to relinquish his seat in 1981, he caused an uproar by being the first legislator to wave the Palestinian and Israeli flags alongside each other.

But it was in 1982 that he established a reputation outside Israel. He was smuggled into Beirut to meet Arafat, as Israeli forces encircled the city in an effort to remove the PLO from Lebanon.

It later emerged that Israeli soldiers had been tracking Avnery in a bid to locate Arafat's hideout and assassinate him. Avnery's Palestinian escorts managed to elude them.

In his columns, Avnery often credited himself with using the trust he built with Arafat over the next few years to persuade the Palestinian leader to change the PLO's political direction.

In 1988 Arafat renounced a long-standing Palestinian commitment to a single secular democratic state in historic Palestine, and formally accepted the idea of partitioning the territory into two states.

It was a concession that paved the way to the Oslo accords, signed between Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.

That same year Avnery founded Gush Shalom, or "peace bloc", to build on that momentum as Arafat and the PLO were allowed to return to parts of the occupied territories from which Israel had withdrawn.

As well as believing in the right of Palestinians to freedom, Avnery argued strongly that Israel's Jewish demographic majority would be under threat unless it separated from the large Palestinian population in the occupied territories.

There were suspicions that some of Arafat's more misguided assumptions about Israeli society - especially regarding the strength of the peace bloc and the public's receptivity to the Oslo process - were informed by Avnery.

When the peace process effectively collapsed with the failure of the Camp David summit in 2000 and the eruption of a Palestinian uprising, Avnery again found his message of reconciliation out of favour in Israel.

But in his late seventies, he found a new international audience, as his translated columns were disseminated online.

Avnery hoped through his writings to resurrect what was left of his political legacy. But more often his columns were sought out for the light he could shed on current controversies, drawing on insights gained from his knowledge of historical episodes now largely overlooked.

At the height of the second intifada, Avnery and Gush Shalom were often alongside Palestinians protesting against abuses by the Israeli military or the settlers. They also demonstrated to stop Israel's building of a "separation barrier" that subsequently ate up large chunks of Palestinian land in the West Bank.

In 2003, Avnery joined Arafat in his besieged presidential compound in Ramallah, serving as a "human shield" - to foil an expected Israeli assassination attempt. After Arafat died in mysterious circumstances a year later, Avnery was among those arguing that Israel was behind his poisoning.

His last column explored one of his enduring concerns: Israel's identity as a Jewish state. It was provoked by the recent passage of the Nation-State Basic Law, which confers on Jews around the world privileges in Israel that are denied to the country's large minority of Palestinian citizens.

For many years Avnery had been among those warning that Israel could not be a democracy if it did not treat all citizens as equal, but instead allocated key rights based on differing Jewish and Arab nationalities.

In 2013 he and other Israelis appealed to the supreme court to recognise for the first time an Israeli nationality shared by all citizens. The judges rejected their arguments.


Uri Avnery has died he was one of my few Middle East heroes 23.Aug.2018 00:50

Robert Fisk

Voices

Uri Avnery, the Israeli optimist who played chess with Yasser Arafat, has died - he was one of my few Middle East heroes

There he is in my six-year-old notebook, very much alive, still demanding peace with the Palestinians, peace with Hamas, and generosity and a Palestinian state on the old 1967 borders - and he believes Israel could have peace tomorrow

Robert Fisk @indyvoices 2 days ago

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Uri Avnery was himself a Zionist, or at least a believer in a left-wing, courageous but humble "light among the nations" Israel ( Reuters )
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It was somehow fitting that first news of Uri Avnery's plight should reach me from one of Israel's staunchest enemies, the Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. One legend sending sad news of another, you see, a socialist preparing to mourn a fellow socialist, sending his sympathy for the 94-year-old Israeli political philosopher. That same philosopher was once a German Jewish schoolboy, originally called Helmut Ostermann, who refused to give the Hitler salute at school, but who was, when I received Jumblatt's message - still, just - "an indispensable mind to understand the history of fascism, a major destructive element of the 20th century". Jumblatt's words. Avnery, he added, also understood "the history of Zionism, another despicable apartheid theory that is an offshoot of fascism".

Uri Avnery suffered a massive heart attack at the weekend and died on Monday morning, but he was himself a Zionist, or at least a believer in a left-wing, courageous but humble "light among the nations" Israel; the kind many of us, in our heart of hearts, would like to believe in. He was the sort of Israeli that we bleeding heart liberals go and see when we arrive in Israel because they say what we want to hear.

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Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli troops: in pictures
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"Tell Jumblatt that he must break up his sentences into paragraphs," Avnery told me when I left his Tel Aviv apartment six years ago. "He says everything in one long text and I can hardly breathe." Lesson duly passed on to Jumblatt from a man who often wrote single sentence paragraphs, an annoying habit of tabloid journalism which does occasionally get a message across rather well.

I must admit that Uri Avnery was one of my Middle East heroes - there aren't many - and his story is worthy of a movie, though there will be no Spielbergs to direct it: writer, journalist, leftist, veteran of the Israeli army in the country's War of Independence - and, as he never forgot, the same war which drove 750,000 Palestinians from their home and lands. He played chess with Arafat during the 1982 siege of Beirut - be sure, this will be in the first two paragraphs of the obituaries today - and his angry but gently cynical newsletters would arrive on Friday afternoons, condemning Netanyahu for his hypocrisy and racism, Sharon for his hatred of Palestinians, missives from a book-crammed home in Tel Aviv, close to the sea but in a modest, quiet street where Avnery could ruminate and roar.

He was a wee bit deaf when I met him again - and for the last time - six years ago, but he spoke so quickly, and in perfect sentences, that my pen skidded over the pages of my notebook until it ran out of ink and I had to steal his own biro. I still have the book, and the ink changes from my black to his pale blue at a point when he is talking at high speed about Hamas, with whom he often met, furious that Gaza had turned into a storyline about rocket attacks and retaliation.

"Whenever either of the two sides want to start shooting again, they will," he said. The ink had just changed its colour on the page. "In Gush Shalom [which Avnery founded], we put out a sticker five years ago, which said: 'Talk to Hamas'."

This is not an obituary of Uri Avnery, even though the institution has the great journalistic merit of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Because Avnery's warnings and prescience were so contemporary - so absolutely on-the-ball for today's news from the Middle East - that they can be repeated now, today, as if the great old leftist warrior is still alive. And there he is in my six-year old notebook, very much alive, still demanding peace with the Palestinians, peace with Hamas, and generosity and a Palestinian state on the old 1967 borders - give or take a few square miles - and he believes Israel could have peace tomorrow, next week. If Netanyahu wanted it. "The misfortune of being an incorrigible optimist," is how he described his predicament to me. Or perhaps an illusionist?

His family fled Nazi Germany for Palestine and I went to see him again - he who had played chess with Arafat - after the 1982 massacre of up to 1,700 Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut, a war crime committed by Israel's Christian Phalangist allies while Israeli soldiers watched but did not intervene. I had walked across the bodies in the camp. How could the survivors of the Jewish Holocaust and their children let this happen to the Palestinians, I asked Avnery? Avnery was only 63 years old at the time. His reply is worth printing, in full:

"I will tell you something about the Holocaust. It would be nice to believe that people who have undergone suffering have been purified by suffering. But it's the opposite, it makes them worse. It corrupts. There is something in suffering that creates a kind of egoism. Herzog [the Israeli president at the time] was speaking at the site of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but he spoke only about the Jews. How could he not mention that others - many others - had suffered there? Sick people, when they are in pain, cannot speak about anyone but themselves. And when such monstrous things have happened to your people, you feel nothing can be compared to it. You get a moral 'power of attorney', a permit to do anything you want - because nothing can compare to what has happened to us. This is a moral immunity which is very clearly felt in Israel. Everyone is convinced that the IDF is more humane than any other army. 'Purity of arms' was the slogan of the Haganah army in '48. But it never was true at all."

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Ahed Tamimi: Teenage Palestinian protester released from Israeli prison
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And Avnery was a member of that army, badly wounded in the 1948 war; he even became a member of the Knesset, but was threatened by the Israeli cabinet after he met Yasser Arafat in Beirut. He should be tried for treason, Israeli ministers said. I think Avnery was rather proud of that. His curmudgeonly, irritating, courageous personality could embrace the occasional political martyrdom, something which modern socialists are almost all too frightened to contemplate.

Netanyahu - six years ago when I last saw Avnery and until the days before his death - enraged the old Israeli soldier of 1948. What was the Gaza war meant to achieve, I asked him in 2012 - for there always has "just been" a Gaza war in recent Israeli history, and the latest, in November of that year, had killed 107 civilians in Gaza and four civilians on the Israeli side of the line. And what was Netanyahu and his government - then and, I suppose, today - doing, I asked him?

Avnery's eyes sparkled and he spat out his reply. "You are presuming you know what they [Netanyahu's government] 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... If they annex the West Bank as they have annexed east Jerusalem, 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 went 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 [Zionist] exercise of the past 130 years has come to naught". Mass ethnic cleansing would be impossible in the 21st century, Avnery assured me. I wonder.

He often pondered the demise of the Israeli "Left" - they were "hibernating", he said after Ehud Barack, the (Israeli) Labour leader, had come back from the Camp David talks in 2000 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".

Perhaps his next words should be written on Avnery's grave. "When I met Arafat in 1982" - he was to meet him again many times - "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... "

Avnery remained 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". For them, Avnery, explained, Palestine is a "waqf" and 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, he said, 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."

Back then, in 2012, I ended my report on the 89-year old Avnery with the observation that "there are more than a few liberals in Israel who hope that Uri Avnery lives for another 89 years". Now there are even fewer liberals left, and Avnery lived for less than another six years. There was to have been a 95th birthday party for him in Tel Aviv next month. If they still hold it, however, Avnery's friends - and enemies - should proclaim that Avnery is dead. But then add: And long live Avnery.