Uri Avnery, June, 2006. Wikicommons/ Uri Avnery. Some rights reserved.
Some years ago I was asked to go and collect Uri Avnery from the airport. Although I had been reading his regular email reports from Israel, I wondered how I would recognise him. I needn’t have worried, the moment I saw a magnificent old man, complete with a head of impressive white hair and an equally impressive white beard, striding towards me, I knew I had found my quarry. Uri looked every inch the Old Testament prophet I hadn’t dared to expect.
It was an appropriate reaction, Uri was a prophet, looking into the future that he saw for Israel and warning of the wrath to come, if the country he loved, did not change course.
After leaving Germany aged fourteen, Uri joined an extremist nationalist group and fought in the War of Independence in 1948. Then, like so many other prophets, he had a Road to Damascus and saw that violence would not solve the problem of the displaced Palestinians. For the rest of his long life, he fought for a peaceful and fair settlement, one made by consulting with the Palestinians themselves. Until around 1970, this seemed possible and Uri put the case both through the journals he edited and wrote for and by becoming a member of the Knesset.
Uri Avneri interviews Yasser Arafat for the Gush Shalom peace movement in 1982. Wikicommons/Uri Avnery. Some rights reserved.
It was always difficult to be a non-conformist voice in Israel but until the assassination of Rabin, not hopeless. As Israel drifted to the right, Uri never wavered from his purpose, no matter how unpopular he became. Meeting up with Arafat was seen as almost treasonous but Uri recognised that it was both wise and necessary to talk to “the enemy”. All this made him few friends at home, though many admirers abroad. If “no man is a prophet in his own country”, that was true of Uri. However he leaves behind a wealth of books, articles and emails, that will continue to inspire the peace efforts in the Middle East and he represented hope and reconciliation through the dark decades, that alas, are still with us. Like him we must hope and work towards better times, however unlikely any breakthrough seems.
A capacity for rage
Uri thought in both historical and internationalist terms, one was as likely to meet Julius Caesar, Churchill or Kant, in his writings as Trump or Netanyahu. The ability to see the world in such broad terms meant that Uri could envisage solutions that others looking at a narrower canvas could not. For instance the stance on the future of Jerusalem (always a major problem in any negotiations), “Keep the city untied on a municipal level but divide politically. The West as capital of the State of Israel, the East as capital of the State of Palestine”. Of course this eminently sensible solution has not been adopted and the State of Palestine has not happened. However, Uri understood the Israel/Palestine conflict as few others did, and felt a strong compassion for the Palestinians. Quoting Isaac Deutscher, “A man lives in a house that catches fire. To save his life he jumps out of the window. He lands on a passer-by in the street below and injures him grievously. Between the two a bitter enmity arises. Who is responsible?”
Although Uri clung to the Two State Solution to the end, seeing the alternative as a Jewish-dominated entity trapped in endless racial and religious conflict ( this put him at odds with many progressive Israelis) – he never swerved from expressing unpopular views. Right at the end of his life he was outraged at the killing of unarmed civilians on the border with Gaza, his capacity for rage never dimmed:
“For me this is not a judicial question. It is a crime, not only against the unarmed protesters. It is also a crime against the State of Israel and against the Israeli army."
Avnery did not only criticise the situation, for forty years he battled to find a solution, showing a capacity for compromise that was rare in Israel. Unlike many, he had an affection and understanding for the Arab people and suggested a scenario, which though never acted upon, was wise and far sighted:
“How do we solve the problem by allowing a number of refugees to return to Israel, allowing a number of refugees to return to the Palestinian state, and allowing a number of refugees to settle, with general compensation, where they want to settle? It is not an abstract problem. It involves four million human beings, and more than fifty years of various sorts of misery. But it is not an insolvable problem. It involves some good will, and a readiness to give up historic myths on both sides.”
Avnery’s views were based on an unusual acceptance of Israel’s responsibility for the conflict:
“Israel must assume responsibility for what happened in 1948, and as far as we are to blame and we are to blame for the greater part, if not for all, we must recognise the right of return.”
Like all true prophets he went tragically unheard at home.
Avnery never spared his opponents at home and abroad. On those he despised he poured undiluted scorn and opprobrium, most recently on Trump and the right wing leaders of Poland and Hungary and Netanyahu’s grovelling to them, in spite of their overt anti-semitism. Never afraid to tell truth to power, Israel has lost one of its most clear-sighted and indomitable warriors for peace.