90-year-old Israeli peacemaker asks if Israel will exist in 90 years

Uri Avnery, a prominent early supporter of the two-state solution, is using his 90th birthday to prompt discussion about Israel's future. His 1982 handshake with Yasser Arafat infuriated Israelis.

Gary Hershorn/Reuters/File
Then Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat (r.) gestures to then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (l.), as then US President Bill Clinton stands between them, following their handshake after the signing of the Israeli-PLO peace accord, at the White House in Washington September 13, 1993.

As a young soldier wounded towards the end of Israel's War of Independence, Uri Avnery had plenty of time to think about the meaning of the 1947-49 fighting from which Israelis gained a state and Palestinians became refugees.

He reached conclusions that were derisively dismissed by mainstream opinion and leaders at the time but are now part of an international near-consensus that a two-state solution is the way to resolve the conflict.

''I came out of the war totally convinced that one: we need peace, two: there exists a Palestinian people, and three: that making peace with the Palestinians means to have a Palestinian state next to Israel,'' he said.

On the wall of Avnery's Tel Aviv apartment is a picture of him interviewing Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat at the height of Israel's siege of Beirut in 1982, perhaps Avnery's most dramatic act in pursuit of the peace compromise he pushed as editor of the Haolam Hazeh ("This world") magazine, as a member of the Knesset from 1965 to 1975, and to this day in his weekly columns on behalf of the small Gush Shalom peace movement.

Hawks called for him to be tried for treason, but Avnery believes the Beirut meeting paved the way for the Oslo Accords, clinched by a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Mr. Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993.

''I see my job in the last 60 years as changing the mutual perceptions of Israelis and Palestinians. The first thing needed to make peace is to respect the other side, to see the other side in human terms, as an enemy but not as demonic.'' he says.

Avnery celebrated his 90th birthday last month, and he is marking it today with a panel discussion on the topic ''Will Israel Exist Ninety Years from Now?''

Today there are growing doubts about whether the two-state solution Avnery supports will ever materialize, especially in light of continued Israeli settlement of the territory of the would-be Palestinian state. The Israeli left, which favors an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, has not regained the support it lost amid the suicide bombings of the second intifada in the early 2000s and the wide perception among Israelis that the Palestinians rejected generous peace offers.

Avnery rejects the idea that the number of settlers – there are currently 550,000 in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, intended to be the capital of a future Palestinian state – will soon reach a critical mass that makes territorial withdrawal impossible.

"You need a very strong government [to evacuate the settlers] but it can be done," he says.

However, Danny Dayan, foreign affairs envoy of the Yesha Council, which represents the settlers in the West Bank, says the two-state solution ''was never achievable."

"It is depressing because Avnery knows the Palestinians and their intransigence and their reluctance to accept Israel as a Jewish state. I guess he is entitled to still believe in fairy tales," Mr. Dayan says

Avnery, however, still hopes he will live to see an independent Palestine alongside Israel. ''When I want to evoke laughter I say I've decided to stay alive 'til it happens. People say this guarantees a long life for me," he says.

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