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Amos Oz, giant of Israeli letters cut a divisive figure

Celebrated as one of the best-known authors from Israel, Oz was an advocate for partition as a solution to Israel-Palestine conflict

The Israeli author Amos Oz died in late December. AP
The Israeli author Amos Oz died in late December. AP

Amos Oz, Israel's best-known author and an outspoken supporter of a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians, died of cancer at the age of 79 on Friday.

Over a 50-year career, Oz chronicled his country's rise from the ashes of the Holocaust and its struggles —among Jews and Arabs, secularists and zealots, conservatives and liberals.

His writing - witty, scholarly, and often moody and erotic - won international plaudits, and he was a frequent bookies' favourite for the Nobel Prize for Literature. But his political views sometimes stirred up rancour.

Celebrated in death as one of a dwindling number of mainstream voices in Israel pushing for a compromise to find peace with Palestinians, critics accuse him of framing the conflict in almost fatalistic terms that absolved Tel Aviv of culpability and of being a dogmatic supporter of partition as the sole solution.

"To those who loved him, thank you," his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger said in a Twitter post announcing his death.

Born Amos Klausner in Jerusalem to Eastern European immigrants, Oz moved to a kibbutz at 15 after his mother's suicide. He changed his surname to the Hebrew for "might".

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 30, 2002 Israeli writer Amos Oz (C) talks with Palestinian men after picking olives in the West Bank village of Aqraba, south of Nablus. Revered Israeli writer Amos Oz dies at 79 according to his daughter. / AFP / Menahem KAHANA
In a photo from October 2002, Israeli writer Amos Oz talks with Palestinian men after picking olives in the West Bank village of Aqraba, south of Nablus. AFP

Oz fought in the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars, experiences that tinged his advocacy for territorial compromise with the Palestinians. Much of his writing on the possible future of a peace agreement revolved around the idea that the two sides were simply unable to live side by side, describing them as "two unhappy families".

"We cannot become one happy family because we are not one, we are not happy, we are not family. We are two unhappy families. We have to divide the house into two smaller next-door apartments," he told Deutsche Welle in an interview marking Israel's 70th anniversary this year.

"There is no point in even fantasising that after 100 years of bloodshed and anger and conflict Jews and Arabs will jump into a honeymoon bed and start making love not war."

Ben White, a journalist and the author of Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Israel/Palestine, pointed out in a tweet that in 2005 Oz described Israeli and Palestine as being like “a jailer and his prisoner, handcuffed to one another. After so many years, there is almost no difference between them: the jailer is no more free than his prisoner”.

This, Mr White says, erases the disparity of power between Palestinians and Israelis. Mr White also pointed out that Oz regularly repeated Israeli government talking points during the 2014 Israel invasion of Gaza, dubbed Operation Protective Edge.

But since US-sponsored negotiations stalled in 2014, any peace deal has looked unlikley.

Oz's death "deprived Israel and the dwindling peace camp of another rarity," Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi tweeted.

Oz studied philosophy and Hebrew literature at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "Elsewhere, Perhaps", his first novel and an examination of relationships on a fictional kibbutz, was published in 1966.

In his later years, he taught Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev while living in the nearby desert town of Arad, where he had moved to salve his son's asthma.

Among his dozens of books, widely translated abroad from Hebrew, was "A Tale of Love and Darkness," a memoir that actress and director Natalie Portman adapted for the screen in 2016.

"It was a tale of love and light, and now, a great darkness," Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in a statement. "Rest in peace, dear Amos. You gave us great pleasure."

"My heart is broken," Portman wrote in a eulogy on Instagram.

Earlier this year Oz commented on recent developments since US president Donald Trump announced the relocation of the country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, ending decades of White House policy.

“I don’t know what the future holds for Jerusalem but I know what should happen. Every country in the world should follow President Trump and move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At the same time, each one of those countries ought to open its own embassy in East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian people,” he told an interview with German television.


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