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 or 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.