By Khaled Diab
Ever since I was introduced to the term ‘peacemonger’ in an article from September last year written by Uri Avnery, Israel’s most famous peacenik, I have quite fancied myself as one of those troublemakers beating courageously on my peace drum.
“A terrible enemy is conspiring to impose peace on us. He is advancing against us from two sides, in a giant pincer movement,” he wrote. “Against this danger of the Arab peacemongers, the Olmert government is calling up all its forces.”
But this official peace cavalry has been cut off at the pass and lacking the ability to win ‘hearts and minds’, it has retreated in silent defeat. That is why individual ‘peacemongers’ and dedicated bands of peace worriers must take up the fight. Lightly armed with compassion, empathy, wit, guile and a willingness to compromise and coexist, they must launch their own stealthy guerrilla offensives against the massed forces of hatred and distrust mobilised by the extremists.
Given my powerful desire to declare peace on the enemy, I decided that it was a good idea to visit Uri Avnery, Israel’s best-known and most controversial ‘peacelord’ to exchange strategies and debate ideas. Having read so much of his writing over the years, the idea of meeting him did fill me with a certain amount of trepidation. This wise old man was once a teenage member of the extremist Jewish militia, the Irgun – branded the ‘terrorists’ of their time.
His colourful career has seen him reinvent himself to become Israel’s leading alternative media publisher in the 1950s and 1960s, one of its most radical politicians and eventual founder of Gush Shalom, the left-wing peace movement. He was the first Israeli to meet Yasser Arafat, during the Battle of Beirut in 1982, and faced accusations of being a ‘traitor’ from fellow Knesset members.
Over the years, Avnery has been Israel’s loud and unrelenting public conscience. Although never part of the Israeli mainstream, the veteran peacenik has had a massive magnifying effect over the years, often occupying a pioneering position that the mainstream would later flow towards – what he calls, the ‘small wheel effect’. As I also suffer from the urge to roam uncharted yet fertile political and social terrain, I thought it would be useful to meet a veteran ‘pioneer’.
Given his visionary’s ability to look beyond the here and, I wanted to hear from him what kind of wheels are currently being set in motion and what the future holds.
Prophet of peace
On my last Sunday in Israel, Uri Avnery ushered me into his Tel Aviv apartment which boasted one incredible view. His brilliant white beard and hair had a faint suggestion of the Biblical prophet about it. He sat me on armchair where I could admire the setting sun as it descended into the Mediterranean. Behind my shoulder was the sky-fawning Tel Aviv skyline.
In his no nonsense and slightly intimidating manner, he got straight down to business: “What is it exactly you wish to talk to me about?”
I asked him what settlement he expected. “The solution is that there will be a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories along the Green Line, with some small exchanges of territory. And Jerusalem will be under joint control,” he predicted.
I asked him how this would come about, given that the Israeli government had turned down the Arab League’s peace overtures – and the other sticking points, such as the status of Jerusalem and the right of Palestinian return.
“There must be push and there must be pull. It is good that the Arab League is offering clearly and unequivocally a fair peace offer. The push must come internally from the peace movement and from the international community.”
I wondered to myself how likely it would be that the peace movement would be able to mobilise enough support in time to salvage this latest bid and whether the international community would be able to take a robust stand, given America’s own stridently militaristic approach in the region and Europe’s inability to agree on a common Middle Eastern policy.
I asked him about the prospect of moving the 400,000 settlers living in the West Bank – or at least most of them – given how difficult it was to pull only 8,000 settlers out of Gaza. “It’s difficult,” he admitted. “But it won’t get any easier. An exchange of territory may partly solve this, but there’s no way to avoid it.”
He went on to explain that: “The Israeli government does not want peace because of the political price of dismantling the settlements. In general, Israeli society does not like the settlers. But they are Israelis, so it is a difficult challenge to face up to.”
“If you want peace, you must remove settlements,” he stressed.
I told him about the remarks I’d heard from numerous Israelis who expressed a fear that if they abandoned the West Bank, the Palestinians would just see it as an opportunity to launch more rocket attacks. “Either you have peace or you don’t have peace. You can’t say ‘I don’t want peace because I’m afraid of war’.” He warned that if no peaceful settlement was reached soon, “the West Bank would be like Gaza in a couple of years.”
When I asked what he thought of Israel’s so-called ‘deterrent posture’, he said he believed it was counterproductive and had to be abandoned but explained that it was a product of the hostility Israel has historically faced in the region, as well as the collective trauma of the Holocaust, after which Jews vowed they would never be so weak again.
Reaching across the divide
I asked Avnery what the Palestinians could do to better manage their cause. He recommended that Palestinian activists should work on creating real co-operation with the peace movement in Israel. “After the death of Arafat, all connections were cut. Now, the need to reach out to Israeli society,” he said.
They also need to work on constructing a unified Palestinian voice and highly organised social structures. “They need social organisations that allow Palestinian resistance to become general and non-violent… Mass action in the spirit of Martin Luther King is very effective, but need strong organisation.”
“Violent resistance has proved ineffective… Non-violence for me is not a question of principle; it is a question of usefulness,” he added.
He then turned his attention to the wider region. “In all this, the Arab World has not played a very glorious role. They have done very little to help the Palestinians. Even today, it is ridiculous that the West can impose an embargo on the PA and the Arabs, like Saudi Arabia, cannot keep the Palestinian struggle alive with their oil wealth.”
I asked him about the prospects of a bi-national federation emerging sometime in the future. “Any independent Israel and Palestine would have very close ties. There can be no truly separate states because the country is too small and their economies are interdependent.”
Whether they simply coordinated everything closely or formalised their relationship in the form of a federal arrangement would depend on the political climate of the time. “Our two peoples are much closer to each other than would appear in the clouds of conflict. What prevents closer co-operation and ties is the occupation.”
He used Belgium as a useful analogy for Israel-Palestine, with two communities, Flanders and Wallonia, and Brussels like Jerusalem. He said that Arafat often spoke of BeNeLux between Israel, Palestine and Jordan. He also said that King Hassan of Morocco had told him that he had proposed in the 1950s that Israel be invited to join the Arab League.
“At least for the foreseeable future, I see the two states as the only sensible solution,” he noted.
I asked him how optimistic he was about the future. He told me that he expected peace in his lifetime. The man is a robust and healthy 83.
©Khaled Diab. All rights reserved.
©Khaled Diab. All rights reserved.