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.
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.”