Interview: Uri Avnery

Veteran Israeli activist speaks about his life as a peace campaigner.

Avnery was the first Israeli to meet the
Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat 

Uri Avnery is an Israeli institution. Born Helmut Ostermann in 1923 in Germany to a wealthy Jewish family, he has been involved in Israeli politics for nearly 70 years.

A committed Zionist as a young man, he became involved in an underground Jewish organisation that carried out acts of violence against British troops during their control of Palestine.

By the age of 20 he had renounced violence and Zionism and he became an early advocate of a Palestinian state.

He spoke to Al Jazeera about his early life as a Zionist, meeting Yasser Arafat and his hope that Israel will become part of the Middle East.

“I lived in Germany for the first 10 years of my life. When the Nazis came to power we fled and as my father was a committed Zionist we went to Palestine. We had been very well to do in Germany but became very poor in Palestine.

“I could not afford to finish school and at the age of 14 I started working. My first job as the clerk of a court in Jaffa [a majority-Arab town just outside Tel Aviv], which meant I came into contact with a lot of Arabs.

“When I was 15 years old I joined the extreme Zionist organisation, the Irgun.

“We wanted to establish a Jewish homeland in what is now Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan, but our main objective was to get the British out of Palestine.

“I was involved for about three or four years. We considered ourselves freedom fighters, but we were considered terrorists by the British.

“The organisation engaged in terrorism, although as I was young I was not engaged in actual terrorist activity but involved in distributing propaganda materials.

“The Irgun carried out acts of retaliation during the Arab Revolt of 1936, including putting bombs in Arab marketplaces.

“When I was 19 I changed my mind about the Irgun and Zionism, and left the group after becoming disillusioned with their methods.”

By 1948 Avnery had gone from being a committed believer in the Zionist project to becoming one of the first advocates of the “two-state solution” that remains the basis of peace negotiations today.

Then came the creation of the state of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war.

“When the state of Israel was founded I just accepted it. I was then called up to army and carried out more than 50 frontline missions before I was shot and wounded in the abdomen.

“During the war I sent back reports of the things I saw which were later published as a book.

“I was an eyewitness to everything including the killings and expulsions of Palestinians and I wrote a second book in 1949 called The Other Side of the Coin which documented this.

“I described what I’d seen with my own eyes – the creation of Palestinian refugees –  and this was very unpopular. I became something of an outcast.”

Avery went on to own and edit a political magazine – Haolam Hazeh or This World – that became famous for its irreverent tone and opposition to the government of David Ben-Gurion. In 1965 he set up a political party of the same name,  remaining a member for the Knesset – the Israeli parliament –  for 10 years.

“During the Six-Day War in 1967 I called for a state of Palestine to be established in the lands occupied by Israel and spoke to the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, about this on several occasions.

“In the early 1970s I began to make contact with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and had many meetings with the emissaries of Yasser Arafat including Said Hammami [the PLO’s London representative who was killed in 1978, reportedly by a hardline Palestinian group].

Avnery is one of Israel’s foremost
campaigners for peace 

I believed that the PLO wanted to reach a political settlement with Israel and that we should immediately begin negotiations with them.

“In 1982, during the Lebanese civil war, I crossed the front lines during the battle of Beirut and met Yasser Arafat – the first meeting between Arafat and any Israeli.

“We had a very long conversation. As a personality I found him very different to how he seemed on television.

“When I left I heard on the radio that four cabinet ministers had demanded that I be put on trial for treason for meeting him.

“Within minutes of our first meeting I established very warm relations with him that continued until his last days.

“I admired Arafat – he was a great leader and one of the great personalities of his age, and a man of incredible physical and moral courage.

“I can say only that I miss him very very much.”

That closeness led Arafat to invite Avnery to join him as he returned to Gaza in 1994, after the 1993 Oslo peace agreement.

“The problem with Oslo was that while the Palestinians had a specific aim, the creation of a Palestinian state, the Israelis had no specific aim and this led to problems.

“Arafat described the deal “as the best possible deal in the worst possible circumstances”.

“Oslo was an incredible achievement, considering the incredible imbalance of forces between the two sides. Israel recognised the Palestinian people, whose very existence had been denied completely.”

In 1993 Avery founded Gush Shalom – Peace Bloc – an Israeli peace group.

“Since then we have carried out maybe more than 500 demonstrations and peace actions which, without wavering, say we must make peace with the Palestinian people. That we must solve the refugee problem, end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, give back East Jerusalem and dismantle all the settlements.

“Since the last elections, we have started negotiations with Hamas leaders, but unfortunately all the people we have contacted have been arrested by the Israeli government.”

Since Israel’s recent failure to defeat Hezbollah in the conflict in Lebanon and the inclusion of a right-wing nationalist, Avigdor Lieberman, in the government, it seems the Israel is moving to the right. Avnery believes that this is only a surface change.

“It seems as though Israel is moving to the right because there is no alternative for the government.

Avnery remains committed to a peaceful
solution to the conflict

Underneath the surface, things are moving in our direction. Israelis now recognise the existence of the Palestinian people and that they have a right to a Palestinian state.

“Israeli public opinion has changed because of our efforts and this process is going on. The war in Lebanon will mean that fewer and fewer Israelis believe that the military option is a solution to the conflict.”

After almost 70 years being involved in Israeli politics, Avnery remains an optimist but says that Israel will have to change if is to succeed in the Middle East.

“I believe that Israel will make peace with Arab states on the only terms it can. There will be a Middle Eastern body similar to the EU which Israel will be a part of, but it will be a different Israel – one that respects the rights of all its citizens.

“One of the things that I have been saying since 1946 is that any Hebrew nation here is part of Asia and must find a way to integrate itself into Asia and not into Europe.

“That is what we must decide if we want to succeed.”


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