Uri Avnery – peace activist, journalist, writer.
founding member, Gush Shalom (peace bloc), independent peace movement (1993)
former publisher and editor-in-chief, Haolam Hazeh news magazine (1950-1990)
former member of the Knesset (three terms: 1965-1969, 1969-1973, 1979-1981)
founding member, Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace (1975)
born: September 10, 1923, Beckum, Germany
immigration to Palestine: November 1933
spouse: Rachel Avnery, peace activist, teacher, photographer
underground: member of the Irgun, 1938-1942
army service: member of “Samson’s Foxes”, motorized commando unit, 1948 war, severely wounded in battle of al-Faluja, December 1948
Son of a well-established German-Jewish family, originally from the Rhine area. (Avnery jests that his family believed that they had come to Germany with Julius Ceasar, but that “no archaeological proof has yet been found”.)
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April 8, 2017
The Tunic of Nessus
IN A few weeks, Israel will celebrate the 50. anniversary of the Six-Day War.
But the event deserves better. It is a drama unique in human history. Only a biblical writer could do it justice. William Shakespeare could have turned his hand to it.
I suppose that most readers were not yet alive at the time, and certainly not yet able to understand what was happening.
So let me try to recount the drama as I saw it unfolding.
IT STARTED on Independence Day, 1967, the annual celebration of the official founding of the State of Israel. It was only the 19th anniversary.
The Prime Minister, Levy Eshkol, was standing on the tribune reviewing a march-past of the armed forces. Eshkol was as far removed from military ceremonial as one can imagine. He was a civilian through and through, the leader of a group of party elders who had drummed the authoritarian David Ben-Gurion out of the ruling Labor Party four years earlier.
At the height of the ceremonies, somebody handed Eshkol a piece of paper. Eshkol glanced at it and continued as if nothing had happened.
It was a short message: The Egyptian army is entering the Sinai peninsula.
THE FIRST public reaction was disbelief. What? The Egyptian army? Everybody knew that the Egyptian army was busy in far-away Yemen. There, a civil war was raging, and the Egyptians had intervened, not very successfully.
But the following days confirmed the unbelievable: Gamal Abd-al-Nasser, the Egyptian president, was indeed sending military units into the Sinai desert. It was a clear provocation of Israel.
The Sinai peninsula belongs to Egypt. In 1956 Israel had occupied it, in collusion with two declining colonial empires, France and Britain. Ben-Gurion, then the Prime Minister, had declared the “Third Israeli Empire” (following David and the Hasmoneans more than two thousand years before), but had to retract mournfully.
US President Dwight Eisenhower and Soviet President Nikolai Bulganin had both sent ultimatums, and Israel had no choice but to obey. So Israel gave back everything it had conquered, but got two consolation prizes: the Sinai was demilitarized. UN troops occupied key positions. Also, the Egyptians had to open the Strait of Tiran, the exit from the Gulf of Aqaba, on which Israel’s (small) exports to the East depended.
What had induced Nasser, a great orator but sober statesman, to start another adventure?
IT STARTED in Syria, a competitor of Egypt for the leadership of the Arab world. Yasser Arafat’s guerrillas were raiding Israel from the Syrian border, and the Israeli Chief-of-Staff had declared that the Israeli army would march on Damascus if this nuisance did not stop.
Nasser saw an opportunity to reassert his leadership of the Arab world. He warned Israel to leave Syria alone, and in order to underline his message he sent his army into Sinai. Also, he told the UN troops in Sinai to evacuate several of their positions.
This angered the UN Secretary-General, the Burmese U Thant, who was not a very wise leader either. He answered that if Nasser insisted, all UN troops would leave. Since Nasser could not back down without losing face, all the UN troops left.
A mood of panic swept Israel. All the army reserves were called up. Men disappeared from the streets, Israel’s manhood was concentrated on the Egyptian border, doing nothing and getting more impatient from day to day.
As if by design, the fear in Israel became worse from day to day. The civilian Eshkol inspired no confidence as a military leader. To make matters much worse, something curious happened. To quieten the panic, Eshkol decided to address the nation. He made a speech on the radio (no TV yet) which he had written down in advance. Before reading it out, he gave it to his main advisor, who made some small corrections, but at one place this man forgot to strike out the corrected word.
When Eshkol reached this place, he hesitated. Which version was the right one? It was as if the Prime Minister (who was also the Minister of Defense) was stuttering when the fate of the nation was hanging in the balance.
BUT WAS it? While the panic grew all around me, I was walking around like a bridegroom at a funeral. Even my wife thought that I had become a bit crazy.
But I had good reason. Some months before the start of the crisis I had been invited to give a talk in a kibbutz. As usual, after I was done I was invited to coffee with some of the veteran members. There, a member told me in confidence that a week earlier the army commander of the northern front had also given a talk and been invited to coffee, and confided to the veterans: “Every night, before going to bed, I pray to God that Nasser will send his army into the Sinai. There we shall annihilate them.”
At the time I was the editor of a mass-circulation magazine, as well as a member of the Knesset and the Chairman of the party that had sent me there. I wrote an article called “Nasser has Fallen into a Trap”, which only reinforced the impression that I was off my rocker.
But Nasser soon realized that he had indeed fallen into a trap. He frantically tried to get out – but the wrong way. He issued blood-curdling threats, declared the closure of the Straits of Tiran (but also quietly sent a trusted colleague to Washington, urging the President to restrain Israel. Like all Arab leaders at the time, he sincerely believed that Israel was just an American puppet.)
In fact, the straits were never really closed. But the announcement made war inevitable. Under immense public pressure, Eshkol had to give up the Ministry of Defense and turn it over to Moshe Dayan. Several of the most respected generals demanded a meeting with Eshkol and threatened to resign if the army was not immediately ordered to attack. The order was given.
ON THE second day of the war I was called to the Knesset. I was sick with influenza, but got up and drove to Jerusalem. My shining white car shone like a meteor among the mass of tanks also hastening to Jerusalem, but the soldiers let me through, showering me with jocular comments.
The Knesset was under fire from Jordanian artillery. We hurriedly voted on the war budget (I voted for it and do not repent it, as I repented two other votes, but that is another subject). Then we were rushed to the shelter.
There, a high-ranking friend whispered in my ear: “It’s all over. We have destroyed the Egyptian Air Force on the ground.” And so we had. The real founder of the Israeli Air Force, Ezer Weitzman, had been planning this day for years and had created a force specifically shaped for this one job.
The following is history. In six incredible days the Israeli army easily destroyed three Arab armies, and elements of some more, which were left without air cover. The country was in a delirium of joy. Victory songs and victory parties abounded. All reason was sent to the devil.
ON THE fifth day of the war I published an “open letter” to the Prime Minister, calling on him to order an immediate plebiscite among the Palestinians in the territories we had just conquered, allowing them to choose between return to the Kingdom of Jordan, or Egypt in the case of Gaza, annexation by Israel, or a national state of their own.
A few days after the end of the war Eshkol invited me to a private meeting, and after listening to my ideas about a Palestinian state side by side with Israel, asked me good-naturedly: “Uri, what kind of merchant are you? If one wants to make a deal, one starts by asking the maximum and offering the minimum, and slowly nears a compromise. You want us to offer them everything in advance?”
So nothing was offered the Palestinians. 50 years later we are stuck with the occupation. Israel has changed completely, the despised Right-wing has assumed almost absolute power, settlers roam the West Bank, and Gaza has been turned into an isolated ghetto. Israel has turned into a colonial apartheid state.
IF I were religious, I would describe it this way: many years ago God sent his chosen people, Israel, into exile from the Holy Land as punishment for their sins. 130 years ago a part of the people of Israel decided to return to the Holy Land without God’s permission. Now God has punished the people of Israel again by giving them a miraculous victory, and turning that same victory into a curse that is leading to disaster.
For this purpose, God borrowed an idea from his Greek colleagues. He has turned the occupied territories into the Tunic of Nessus.
Nessus, the centaur, was killed by the hero Hercules. Before he died, Nessus covered his tunic with his tainted blood, which was a deadly poison. When Hercules put it on, it adhered to his skin and he could not take it off again. When he tried, it killed him.
Latest article by Uri Avnery
March 4, 2017
The Cannons of Napoleon
NAPOLEON CAME to a German town and was not welcomed with the traditional artillery salute.
Furious, he summoned the mayor and demanded an explanation.
The German produced a long scroll of paper and said: “I have a list of 99 reasons. Reason No. 1: we have no cannon.”
“That’s enough'” Napoleon interrupted him, “You can go home!”
I WAS reminded of this story some two weeks ago, when I read Yitzhak Herzog’s 10-point peace plan.
Herzog, the leader of the Labor Party, is an honest and intelligent person. All the bad things written about him when it seemed that he was crawling towards Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition have been refuted by the recent disclosure about the Aqaba peace initiative.
The rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Israel, so it appeared, had met in secret and asked Herzog to make peace possible by joining Netanyahu’s coalition. Herzog was hoodwinked by Netanyahu and agreed. He kept silent under the storm of contemptuous reactions. That shows that he is both decent and responsible.
No doubt, he could be a good prime minister for Ireland, where his grandfather had been the Chief Rabbi, or even in Switzerland. But not in Israel.
Israel now needs a strong leader, with lots of charisma and a profound understanding of the historic conflict. Not a Herzog.
COMING BACK to Napoleon.
Two weeks ago Herzog proudly published his Peace Plan, consisting of 10 points.
Point No. 1 is an ritual repetition of the two-states principle. It is point No.2 that is the crux of the matter. It says that the negotiations for peace will start 10 years from now.
That’s where Napoleon would have said “That’s enough. Go home!”
The idea that peace negotiations can be postponed for 10 years is preposterous. A people under a brutal occupation will not sit still for ten years. During this time, the plan obliges the Palestinians (Point 6) to act against “terrorism and sedition”. No mention of Israeli violence and “sedition”.
After 10 years, “on condition that during these years there will be no violence in the area”, peace negotiations will start.
In our area, 10 years are an eternity. Several wars are raging in the area right now. As the occupation goes on, an intifada may break out in Palestine any moment.
During these 10 years, Jewish settlement in the occupied territories will go on merrily. True, only in the “settlement blocs”. These imaginary blocs have never been defined, and Herzog does not define them either. No maps of these blocs exist. There is no agreement about the number of these blocs, and most certainly not about their borders.
For an Arab, “settlement blocs” are just a device to continue building settlements while pretending not to. As an Arab has said: “We negotiate about a pizza, and in the meantime you eat the pizza.”
There are claims that all the territory east of Jerusalem belongs to a settlement bloc and should be annexed to Israel right now. This would almost cut the future State of Palestine into two, with only a few kilometers of desert near Jericho to connect them.
AH, JERUSALEM! It does not exist in Herzog’s plan. That may seem curious – but it is not. It means that the Herzog plan does not envision any change in the status of “United Jerusalem, the eternal capital of Israel.”
Here Napoleon comes in again. A plan that does not include a solution for Jerusalem is a town without cannons.
Anybody who has even the slightest idea of Arab and Muslim sensibilities knows that no Arab or Muslim in the world will agree to make peace if it leaves East Jerusalem and the Holy Sanctuary in non-Muslim hands. There can be several solutions for Jerusalem – partition, joint sovereignty and more – but a plan that does not propose any solution is worthless. It shows an abysmal ignorance of the Arab world.
What else does not appear in the plan? The refugees, of course.
In the 1948 war, more than half the Palestinian people fled from their homes or were driven out. (In a recent article, I have tried to describe what actually happened.) Many of these refugees and their descendants now live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Many others live in the neighboring Arab states and all over the world.
No Arab can sign a peace agreement that does not provide at least a token solution.
By now it is more or less silently agreed that there must be a “just and agreed” solution, which would envision, I suppose, a return of a limited number, paying generous compensation to finance the settlement of all others outside Israel.
But for many Israelis, even letting one single refugee return constitutes a mortal danger to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state.
Not mentioning the problem at all – except as a nebulous “core issue” – is, well, silly.
THERE IS another issue that is not mentioned.
The plan demands unity among the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as a condition for peace. Fine. But does that concern us?
It sure does.
In the Oslo agreement, Israel undertook to open four “safe passages” between the West Bank and Gaza, a distance of about 40 kilometers, through Israeli territory. It left open the character of these passages – extra-territorial roads, a railway line or whatever. In fact, no passage was ever opened, though road signs were set up and later removed. This was and is a flagrant breach of the agreement.
The inevitable result (see: Pakistan) is the breakup into two entities: the West Bank under the PLO and the Gaza Strip under Hamas. The Israeli government seems quite happy with this situation.
Reunification demands the opening of the passages. No word about this in the Herzog plan.
Altogether, the plan looks like a Swiss cheese – more holes than substance.
I HAVE in my life taken part in the formulation of a great many Peace Plans. In September 1958 my friends and I published the “Hebrew Manifesto”, a document of 82 points, including a comprehensive peace plan. So I might claim to be a kind of expert on plan-making (as, alas, distinguished from peace-making).
The Herzog plan has nothing to do with peace-making. It is not intended to win Arab hearts. It is a ramshackle verbal construct designed to appeal to Jewish Israeli voters.
All intelligent Israelis realize by now that we are facing a fateful choice: either two states, or an apartheid state, or a single Arab-majority state. Most Israelis want none of these.
Anyone who wants to lead Israel must come up with a Solution. So this is Herzog’s Solution. It is designed solely for Jewish-Israeli eyes. Arabs need not apply.
As such, is it no better or worse than many other Peace Plans.
Just another exercise in futility.
February 4, 2017
Respect the Green Line!
THE MOST incisive analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I have ever read was written by the Jewish-Polish-British historian Isaac Deutscher. It consists of a single image.
A man lives on the upper floor of a building, which catches fire. To save his life, he jumps out of a window and lands on a passerby in the street below. The victim is grievously injured, and between the two starts an intractable conflict.
Of course, no metaphor is completely perfect. The Zionists did not choose Palestine by chance, the choice was based on our religion. The founder of the movement, Theodor Herzl, initially preferred Argentina.
Still, the picture is basically valid, at least until 1967. From then on, the settlers continued to jump across the Green Line, with no fire in sight.
THERE IS nothing holy about the Green Line. It is no different from any other border line around the world, whatever its color.
Most borders were drawn by geography and the accidents of war. Two peoples fight for the territory between them, at some point the fighting comes to an end, and a border is born.
The land borders of Israel – known for some reason as the “Green Line” – were also established by the accidents of war. A part of that line was the result of a deal between the new Israeli government and the king of Jordan, Abdallah I, who gave us the so-called Triangle as a baksheesh, in return for Israel’s agreement to his annexation of most of the rest of Palestine.
So what’s so holy about this border? Nothing, except that it’s there. And that is true for many borders throughout the world.
A border is established by accident and confirmed by agreement. True, the United Nations drew borders between the Jewish and the Arab states in its 1947 resolution, but after the Arab side started a war in order to thwart this decision, Israel greatly enlarged its territory.
The 1948 war ended without a peace treaty. But the armistice lines established at the end of the war were accepted by the entire world as the borders of Israel. This has not changed during the 68 years that have passed since then.
This situation prevails both de facto and de jure. Israeli law applies only within the Green Line. Everything else is occupied territory under military law. Two small territories – East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights – were unilaterally declared to be annexed by Israel, but nobody in the world recognizes this status.
I ELABORATE on these well-known facts because the settlers in the occupied territories have lately started to taunt their critics in Israel by bringing up a new argument: “Hey, what’s the big difference between us?”
You too sit on Arab lands, they tell us. True, before 1948 the Zionists settled on land they bought with good money – but only a small part of it was bought from the fellahin who tilled it. Most of it was acquired from rich absentee landowners, who had bought it cheaply from the Turkish sultan when the Ottoman Empire was in dire financial straits . The tillers of the land were driven out by the Turkish, and later the British, police.
Large stretches of land were “liberated” during the fighting of 1948, when masses of Arab villagers and city-dwellers fled before the advancing Israeli forces, as civilians do in every war. If they didn’t, a few salvos of machine-gun fire were enough to drive them out.
The inhabitants who were left in Jaffa after the town was conquered, were simply packed on trucks and sent to Gaza. The inhabitants of Lod (Lydda) were driven away on foot. In the end, about 750 thousand Arabs were expelled, more than half the Palestinian people at the time. The Jewish population in Palestine amounted then to 650 thousand.
Some inner voice compels me at this point to mention a Canadian-Jewish officer named Ben Dunkelmann, then 36 years old, who commanded a brigade in the new Israeli army. He had served with distinction in the Canadian army in World War II. He was ordered to attack Nazareth, the home-town of Jesus, but succeeded in inducing the local leaders to surrender without a fight. The condition was that the local population would not be harmed.
After his troops had occupied the town, Dunkelmann received an oral order to drive the population out. Outraged, Dunkelmann refused to break his word of honor as an officer and a gentleman, and demanded the order in writing. Such a written order never arrived, of course (no such orders were ever put in writing), but Dunkelmann was removed from his post.
Nowadays, when I pass Nazareth, a thriving Arab town, I remember this brave man. After that war, he returned to his native Canada. I don’t think he ever came back here again. He died 20 years ago.
HONEST DISCLOSURE: I took part in all this. As a simple soldier, and later as a squad leader, I was a part of the events. But immediately after the war I wrote a book that disclosed the truth (“The Other Side of the Coin”), and a few years later I published a detailed plan for the return of some of the refugees and the payment of compensation to all the others. That, of course, never happened.
Most of the land and the houses of the refugees were filled with new Jewish immigrants.
Now the settlers say, not without some justice: “Who are you to despise us? You did the same as we are doing! Only you did it before 1967, and we do it now. What’s the difference?”
That is the difference. We live in a state that has been recognized by most of the world within established borders. You live in territory that the world considers occupied Palestinian territory. The state of Texas was acquired by the USA in a war with Mexico. If President Trump were now to invade Mexico and annex a chunk of land (why not?), its status would be quite different.
Binyamin Netanyahu – some now call him Trumpyahu – is all for enlarging the settlements. This week, under pressure from our Supreme Court, he staged the removal of one tiny little settlement, Amona, with a lot of heartbreak and tears, but immediately promised to put up many thousands of new “housing units” in the occupied territories.
OPPOSITE POLITICAL extremes often touch each other. So it is now.
The settlers who want to wipe out the difference between us and them, do it not just to justify themselves. Their main aim is to erase the Green Line and include all the occupied territories in Greater Israel, which would extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
A lot of Israel-haters want the same borders – but as an Arab state.
Indeed, I would love to chair a peace conference of Israel-haters and Palestine-haters. I would propose to decide first on the points they all agree on – namely the creation of a state from sea to river. I would leave to the end the decision whether to call it Israel or Palestine.
A world-wide movement called BDS now proposes to boycott all of Israel, in order to achieve this end. I have a problem with that.
GUSH SHALOM, the Israeli peace organization to which I belong, takes great pride in being the first to declare a boycott on the products of the settlements many years ago. We still uphold this boycott, though it is now illegal under Israeli law.
We did not declare a boycott on Israel. And not only because it is rather awkward to boycott oneself. The main object of our boycott was to teach Israelis to differentiate between themselves and the settlements. We published and distributed many thousand copies of the list of companies located and products produced outside the Green Line. Many people are upholding the boycott.
The BDS boycott of all Israel achieves the exact opposite: by saying that there is no difference between Israel within the Green Line and the settlers outside, it pushes ordinary Israelis into the arms of the settlers.
The settlers, of course, are only too happy to get the assistance of BDS in erasing the Green Line.
I HAVE no emotional quarrel with the BDS people. True, a few of them seem to be old-school anti-Semites in a new garb, but I have the impression that most BDS supporters act out of sincere sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians. I respect that.
However, I would urge the well-meaning idealists who support BDS to think again about the paramount importance of the Green Line – the only border that makes peace between Israel and Palestine possible, with some minor mutually agreed adjustments.
ISRAEL IS there. It cannot be wished away. So is Palestine.
If we all agree on that, we can also agree on the continued boycott of the settlements – and of the settlements only.