Peace activist Uri Avnery, longtime advocate of a Palestinian state, dies at 94

Uri Avnery in 1965, when he was a member of Knesset.
Israel National Photo Collection

JERUSALEM — Uri Avnery, a longtime peace activist and one of the first Israelis to advocate for the establishment of a Palestinian state, has died.

Avnery was among the first Israelis to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. He was hospitalized earlier this month following a stroke and died Monday in Tel Aviv at age 94.

The founder of the far-left Gush Shalom movement, Avnery was long the face of Israel’s far left after being on the far right during Israel’s fight for independence.

“Uri Avnery was a courageous journalist and a rare and groundbreaking man,” former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Twitter. “He stood up for his positions despite attacks and he planted the ideas of peace and moderation in the hearts of Israel.”

On the right, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar said Avnery “was as far from myself and my positions as east is from west.

His words and actions often angered me. But in nascent Israel he was a model of fearless opposition, in times when it was difficult to oppose the Mapai (precursor to Labor) regime, which hounded him. And there is no democracy without opposition.”

It was his meeting with Arafat in Beirut in 1982, during the First Lebanon War, that was Avnery’s most enduring legacy. The controversial move led to high-profile calls that Avnery be tried for treason. He would later serve as a human shield for Arafat during the 2003 siege of the Muqata, the presidential compound, in Ramallah.

Avnery spent much of his career as a writer and journalist, publishing books both controversial and popular, and editing the weekly newsmagazine Haolam Hazeh (This World) from 1950 to 1990.

Starting in the 1960s, Avnery became more of a political activist and was elected to the Knesset in 1969.

Born in September 1923 in Germany as Helmut Ostermann, Avnery was brought to pre-state Israel by his parents in 1933 at the age of 10. Initially on the far right of the political spectrum, Avnery joined the Irgun as a teenager, distributing propaganda for the Revisionist militant group.

He later told Haaretz that he regretted his affiliation with the group, saying it made him culpable for its attacks against Arabs that “killed dozens of women and children.”

At first he supported the idea of a binational state and expressed disappointment with the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan that led to the establishment of the State of Israel, saying he “couldn’t accept the partition of the country.”

Despite his reservations Avnery fought in the 1948 War of Independence as part of a commando unit. Following his wartime experiences he dropped his support for a one-state solution, instead backing a two-state paradigm nearly half a century before the signing of the Oslo Accords.

President Reuven Rivlin said Avnery “adopted the challenge of his special status as an eternal opposition.”

“We had fierce differences, but they paled in the face of the ambition to build a strong and free society here,” Rivlin wrote.
Avnery’s wife, Rachel, died in 2011. They had no children.

Avnery “was part Edward Murrow, part Che Guevara, part William Randolph Hearst and part Larry Flynt,” Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev wrote Monday in an appreciation. “His core credo was anti-establishmentarianism. He fought the system when no one else dared. He battled David Ben Gurion and authoritarian Mapai rule in the first years of Israel’s existence with the same vigor that he later combatted the nationalistic drift of Menachem Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud. He raged against the machine, no matter what.”

Journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote of Avnery in Haaretz: “While his own political career as a Knesset member was intermittent and he was too radical, too outspoken, too selfish, to become one of the revered leaders of the Israeli left, he did more than anyone else to make the two-state solution the accepted formula for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

—JTA News and Features

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