The Optimist | The Nation


The Optimist

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On a steamy summer day in 1982, an Israeli journalist named Uri Avnery rode in an armored Mercedes through a maze of streets in Beirut. The air was full of tension--Israel had just invaded Lebanon, and for several weeks the skies above the country's war-torn capital had been streaked with fighter planes. The Mercedes pulled to a stop in front of an elegant apartment building in the western half of the city, where a cluster of bodyguards escorted Avnery inside. A short while later, a small man dressed in khaki military fatigues and a matching cap appeared. It was Yasir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, meeting face to face with an Israeli for the first time.

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Eyal Press
Eyal Press is a Nation contributing writer and the author of Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict...

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The two men sat next to each other on a sofa. Avnery held a tape recorder in his hand, but he seemed less interested in interviewing Arafat, who at that time was regarded as Israel's mortal enemy, a terrorist with whom it was forbidden to engage in dialogue, than in conveying a message to him. "The fact that we are sitting here," Avnery said, speaking English with a thick German accent, "is a sign for the future that our two peoples will in the end find a solution.... There will be a Palestinian state and there will be a state of Israel and the two people will peacefully live together in two states that slowly become not only good neighbors but more than this." Arafat smiled serenely at these words. Then he leaned forward and, jabbing his thumb into the air, proclaimed, "One state! One state!" Avnery smiled back. "I think many Israelis would not agree to this. I think about this we will have to argue in the future."

Arafat is no longer around to carry on this argument. Avnery still is, to the dismay of many Israelis who probably wish he'd disappeared along with their country's former archnemesis. Avnery is 84, with a shock of white hair and a thick white beard, but he has lost none of his fighting spirit. He is Israel's oldest political agitator, the founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) and a veteran of more demonstrations than perhaps any person in Israel alive today. Mohammed Khatib, a Palestinian activist I met last summer, nodded immediately at the mention of his name. "Adam achla," he said of Avnery. ("Great guy.")

This is not how Avnery is described by many Israelis, who, if they've heard of him, would more likely tell you this so-called man of peace has done nothing but stir up trouble all his life. Avnery might not deny the charge. "I was never a quiet man," he once remarked to a documentary filmmaker. That's putting it mildly. In 1950 Avnery began publishing an irreverent newsweekly, Haolam Hazeh ("This World"), which so inflamed the country's ruling elite that Isser Harel, chief of Israel's secret service at the time, wrote that Avnery was "Public Enemy Number 1" in the eyes of the Zionist establishment. On several occasions Haolam Hazeh's offices were bombed by unknown assailants; Avnery was set upon by thugs who bloodied his face and broke his arms in an apparent effort to silence him. It didn't work. In 1965 Avnery launched and won a maverick campaign for a seat in the Knesset, where he served for the next eight years as the often-lonely champion of an array of radical causes: full equality for Arab citizens, the disestablishment of religion, the creation of a Palestinian state in the territories Israel occupied in 1967.

That the last idea does not seem so radical today attests to the fact that, like the small number of Israelis who came to the conclusion that their country will never know peace until Palestinians have a nation of their own, Avnery was a man ahead of his time. Remarkably, Avnery reached this conclusion not long after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, decades before many of Israel's leaders were prepared to acknowledge that "Palestinians" even exist. When Israeli historian Tom Segev sees Avnery, he told me recently, he often thinks to himself, "Here is the man who for sixty years has been right."

And yet there is no denying that, perhaps more than ever, Avnery is a man radically out of step with the mood in his country: an unwavering optimist who still believes peace will come and who remains resolutely convinced the vision he laid out to Arafat in 1982 will come to pass. During the mid-1990s, when the Oslo peace process still looked promising, resistance to this notion emanated almost exclusively from the Israeli right. Today, mention of the two-state solution elicits nearly as much skepticism on the center and the left. The failed Camp David summit in 2000, the eruption of the second intifada later that year, the violent fragmentation of the Palestinian movement this past June--all this has turned many formerly avid supporters of peace into disillusioned cynics. A recent survey found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis no longer believe negotiations will lead to a settlement anytime soon. On the moderate left, an increasingly common view is that, with the Islamist Hamas movement in charge of Gaza and a wellspring of hatred and mistrust on both sides, the best that can be hoped for is to manage the conflict. Many radical critics believe Israel's annexation of growing swaths of the West Bank has rendered the two-state solution obsolete--and that activists should instead call for one state in which Jews and Arabs live together on equal terms.

Avnery is aware that hope is fading--"Yes, around us there's a gathering despair, more than ever," he admits--but he remains unflaggingly upbeat. It's hard not to see an element of tragedy in this--and, perhaps, denial. At a time when a quarter of a million Israelis live in the West Bank, when Palestinians are bitterly divided, when many Israelis have become inured to the daily outrages of the occupation and no outside pressure for a just settlement can be expected from the United States, why does Avnery remain optimistic? Why does he believe that the warring factions in what seems increasingly like the world's most intractable conflict can learn to put aside their grievances?

Avnery's right-wing detractors would likely say it's because he hasn't come to grips with the depth of animosity the Arab world harbors toward Zionism, a hostility he and much of the left are often accused of sharing. It's true that some radical critics of Israel believe the world would be a better place had Zionism never come to fruition. But Avnery isn't one of them, for reasons as much personal as political. Born in Beckhum, Germany, in 1923, he grew up in an affluent neighborhood in the northern city of Hanover. His father, Alfred, was a successful banker. He was also a Zionist. In 1933, the year Avnery turned 10 and Hitler became chancellor, the family packed up their belongings and fled to Palestine. The decision proved financially ruinous--Avnery's parents soon found themselves toiling in a Tel Aviv laundromat--but there were few regrets. "Zionism saved our lives--practically, literally," Avnery told me recently. That some now view it as a sordid colonialist enterprise, forgetting the desperation that drove Jews like his father to yearn for a homeland, reflects historical amnesia, he went on to say, though Avnery blamed this as much on Zionism's uncritical apologists as on its contemporary critics. "It's a shame. I'm sorry about it, because it shows that the history of Zionism has been killed by the denial of what Zionism has done to the Palestinians," he said.

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