TEL AVIV // Having just turned 90, Uri Avnery still finds himself firmly outside Israel’s national consensus.
For more than six decades, the tabloid publisher, member of parliament, author and peace activist has lobbied for establishing a Palestinian state as the only way to secure peace for a democratic Israel with a Jewish majority.
Mr Avnery was perhaps the first prominent Israeli to promote the idea, taking on successive Israeli governments and once, in 1982, sneaking across four battle lines in Israeli-besieged Beirut to talk to Israel’s then-nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat.
Mr Avnery’s views are a measure of how far Israeli public opinion has come: Palestinian statehood was a fringe idea as recently as a generation ago, but is now a principle accepted by a majority.
Yet the nonagenarian renegade with the white beard and full head of white hair still finds himself in a minority because, he says, most Israelis believe reaching a deal with the Palestinians is impossible – in his view, a dangerously complacent and self-serving attitude.
Mr Avnery says his job is to persuade fellow Israelis that doing nothing and allowing Israeli settlements to spread on occupied lands the Palestinians want for their state will lead to a catastrophe – either an Israeli-ruled apartheid state with a disenfranchised Palestinian majority or a bi-national state with equal rights for all where Jews find themselves once again in a minority.
“I feel we are on the Titanic, sailing straight towards an iceberg,” Mr Avnery said on the eve of his 90th birthday last week.
“We have the chance to change the course any moment, but if we are stupid, if we go on sailing, we shall meet the iceberg, inevitably,” he said.
Mr Avnery’s life has been rich in contradictions.
Born into a well-to-do bankers’ family in Germany, he grew up poor in Tel Aviv after he and his parents left his native land following the rise of the Nazis in 1933. As a 10-year-old immigrant, he eagerly embraced Hebrew language and culture, hoping to eradicate what came before, but remains fluent in German and acknowledges also being shaped by the humanist traditions of pre-Nazi Germany.
Mr Avnery is a member of Israel’s founding generation, having fought in the 1948 war over its creation, and had the ear of prime ministers, even while shaking up the establishment with his tabloid weekly, Haolam Hazeh, a mix of hard-hitting exposes, gossip and photos of nude women.
His unwavering convictions have won him respect from political rivals such as Geula Cohen, a long-time advocate of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by the Palestinians for a state.
“He is the political father of the [idea of] the Palestinian state,” Ms Cohen, 87, a former member of parliament, said of Mr Avnery. “He is the first one who raised it politically. I don’t accept his ideas, but I admire his strength to continue to fight for his ideas.”
And even Ms Cohen appears to have budged a bit in Mr Avnery’s direction, saying she could now countenance the idea of a Palestinian state, provided Jerusalem remains in Israeli hands.
Mr Avnery came by his beliefs early on, saying that even as a young man in pre-state Palestine, during the period of the British Mandate, he was convinced that “the Arabs will never be satisfied with less than we are satisfied with, namely freedom and independence.”
Last month, Israelis and Palestinians launched a third attempt since 2000 to reach a deal on the terms of a Palestinian state, but Mr Avnery has low expectations. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is “a superficial person with superficial ideas”, he said. “If he has any principles at all, it’s the principle of ... covering Palestine with settlements.”
Mr Avnery is one of the few constants in Israel’s “peace camp”, increasingly fractured and politically sidelined since the 1990s when the Labor Party under then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin led talks with the Palestinians on interim peace deals.
Mr Avnery reserved his biggest scorn for Ehud Barak, who became prime minister in 1999.
Mr Avnery said Mr Barak rushed into an ill-prepared US-hosted peace summit in 2000, made an offer that – while seen by many in Israel as generous – fell short of what the Palestinians could accept, and upon his return claimed that Israel had no partner for peace.
“When this is said by the self-styled leader of the peace camp in Israel, it has a destructive effect, from which the peace camp has not recovered until today,” he said.
Mr Avnery acknowledged that Palestinian shooting and bombing attacks during the uprising that followed the failed summit created mistrust among Israelis, but stopped short of holding Palestinian leaders of the time responsible, blaming the violence on a lack of serious peace efforts.
For the past 20 years, Mr Avnery has taken his struggle to the streets, as founder of Gush Shalom, or “Peace Bloc”, a group of several hundred activists.
The movement has staged hundreds of protests, often side by side with Palestinian activists.
Mr Avnery’s birthday was September 10, but his present to himself is a symposium he is arranging for next month on whether Israel will exist 90 years from now.
“It’s a great question,” he said. “I am the son of a long line of optimists, and I believe we should change course in time, before it is too late. But I am not sure.”
* Associated Press