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.
“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”.
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.”