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Uri Avnery is an Israeli peace activist, journalist and writer. He is famous for crossing the lines during the Battle of Beirut to meet Yassir Arafat on July, 3, 1982. This was the first time the Palestinian leader ever met with an Israeli. Avnery is also the founder of the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) peace movement.
Since 1993, Gush Shalom has often stood alone in its call for the creation of a Palestinian State in all the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the release of all Palestinian prisoners, the dismantling of all existing settlements, and establishing Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and the new State of Palestine, as well as the recognition of Jerusalem as the joint capital of both states. Every week, a political ad sponsored by Gush Shalom is recognized as “setting the agenda for the peace forces at large.”
Starting in April 1950 until 1990, Avnery served as the editor-in- chief for Haolam Hazeh a widely-circulated news magazine that has been compared with Time Magazine and Der Spiegel in terms of style. Under his leadership it provided a forum for strong opposition to established Israeli positions. In Haolam Hazeh, Avnery, according to his biographer, “offered opposition to the nationalistic, theocratic ‘Jewish state’ created by Ben-Gurion,” and he advocated for “a modern, liberal state, belonging to all its citizens, irrespective of ethnic, national or religious roots.” The magazine also launched Avnery into politics by creating a new political party and helped him win a seat in the Israeli Knesset. The Haolam Hazeh party won two seats in 1969. Avnery served in the Knesset for 8 years initially and served another two-year term starting in 1979.
Avnery is the author of several books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including 1948: A Soldier’s Tale, the Bloody Road to Jerusalem (2008); Israel’s Vicious Circle (2008); and My Friend, the Enemy (1986).
Kathleen Wells: Last night [March 11] Japan experienced a major earthquake and, in fact, many on the West Coast [of the U.S.] are anticipating a tsunami. You’ve characterized what has taken place in Egypt as a tsunami—Mubarak stepping down and the Egyptian people standing up. [Given] what took place in Egypt, what does that mean for Israel?
Uri Avnery: It is very difficult to foresee. It depends, to some extent, on what Israel is doing or not doing. Mr. Mubarak was a staunch ally of Israel, which means that he was serving the Israeli occupation in return for the huge subsidies he got from the United States. He was a kind of a paid servant of American and Israeli policy. With him gone and a new spirit arriving in Egypt, the situation in the Middle East will be totally changed.
One thing [that] seems to be certain that this does not mean that Egypt is turning away from peace and towards war. No one in Egypt during the uprisings spoke about war with Israel. The peace between Israel and Egypt is solidly based on the interest on both sides, which means both sides do not want another round of war. And the masses of the Egyptian people who are striving for life and dignity, social progress and democracy, do not strive for war.
On the other hand, the cozy relationship between Mubarak and the Israeli government has come to an end. The masses of the Egyptian people are deeply offended by the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. When Egypt made peace with Israel, the Egyptian idea of peace was that Israel is putting an end to the occupation and allowing the Palestinians to set up their own independent state. This is hinted at in the peace agreement but was not laid down explicitly, and therefore Mr. Begin at the time had no intention at all of doing so.
Mr. Begin saw the peace with Egypt as a separate peace with a major enemy in order to continue the war against the Palestinians. The Egyptians have been very offended by this, and they are still offended, and therefore if there are democratic elections in Egypt, we can expect that all Egyptian parties will strongly condemn Israel for the continued occupation.
So, to sum it up, there is no chance for another war between Egypt and Israel, but there is a strong probability that relations will be very, very cool indeed.
Kathleen Wells: Will be very, very cool indeed. Can you be a little bit more specific; for instance, the Rafah border was opened recently. And also materials—construction materials—were allowed inside of Palestine for the first time in three years?
Uri Avnery: It will strongly reflect on the Egyptian relationship with the Palestinians. First of all, until now, Egypt has been a full partner of the Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip. The Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip would have been impossible without Egyptian cooperation. It was really more an Egyptian blockade than an Israeli blockade—to please Israel and to please the Americans. This, I think, will not go on. I think, that maybe slowly, the Egyptian participation in the blockade will end—will cease. People will be allowed to leave the Gaza Strip through Egypt. The goods which Israel is not allowing into the Gaza Strip will come into the Gaza Strip from Egypt. This is one major strategic difference.
Then I think that Egypt will much more strongly support the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, diplomatically in the United Nations and in other arenas. Egypt has been supplying Israel with natural gas in great quantities. This has been stopped already months ago after an act of sabotage. It has not been renewed yet, and it’s a question if a new democratically-elected Egyptian government will continue to supply the gas. So there’s a wide range of possible consequences of a changed relationship between Israel and Egypt.
Kathleen Wells: You’ve written that “The Genie is out of the bottle, spreading to the entire Arab world. This spread encompasses Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and even non-Arab and non-Sunni Iran.” Given this spread across these countries, what do you foresee for the entire region?
Uri Avnery: Well, in many Arab countries, democracy will be established. Until now, all Arab countries, with the sole exception of the Palestinian territories, have been dictatorships—military dictatorships, monarchies, absolutist monarchies, and so on. The only free elections in the Arab world were in the Palestinian Authority—[and] were won by Hamas, by the way.
If more Arab countries will be democratic, which means that new parties will emerge in all Arab countries or most Arab countries, and they will be democratically formed in all Arab countries—some small reforms in the monarchies or big reforms in places like Egypt and Tunisia—parties—political parties—will emerge, will compete for their vote, and all of them, I expect, will embrace the Palestinian cause. The plight of the Palestinians is very deeply touching the Arab masses everywhere. And, in the best case, in all these newly-democratic regimes, parties will compete for their vote, and all of them will embrace the Palestinian cause, because the Arab masses everywhere are deeply concerned with the plight of the Palestinian people, Israeli occupation, and the denial of the Palestinians’ right to independence and a state of their own. I would say [this is] the best case, because the worst case would be that in free elections in the Arab countries, fundamentalist Islamic parties, who are deeply anti-Israeli, will win. This is a possibility, though I do not believe that this will happen.
It is a part of the propaganda of my government to depict this devil on the wall—to paint this devil on the wall and to tell America that the choice is between Israel and terrorist Islamic Arab countries. This is complete nonsense. Most Islamic Arab parties are moderate, reasonable, and if parties like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and their equivalents in other countries will come to power, it will be more or less like Turkey, which is, as you know, a democratic country which is enjoying a very pronounced economic prosperity and is governed by an official religious Islamic party.
So I think this fear of Islamism and Islamic parties is being fostered by our government, but also by the American government. I think this is vastly exaggerated and it belongs to the realm of demonology more than real politics.
Kathleen Wells: You know, that’s interesting that you should mention that because … that you should mention this propaganda being foisted by the Israeli government onto the American public, the American citizenry … because yesterday [March 10] Rep. King held hearings in Congress regarding the radicalization of Muslims in America.
Uri Avnery: Well, I’ll tell you something. This Islamophobia is really the new form of anti-Semitism, using the same images, the same slogans, the same demonology. And I’m very, very sorry that so many American Jews are taking part in it, and I deeply deplore the propaganda of my government and its representatives in America, like AIPAC.
This hatred of Islam, this depicting of Islam as something awful, murderous, terrorists, and so on, is something reminding [us] of anti-Semitic slander of the Middle Ages. We are talking about Islam—about more than a billion and a half human beings stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. The biggest Islamic country is Indonesia, which is as democratic as the United States and Israel. You have countries like Turkey (and many Arab states are Islamic) which are flourishing. I hope that they will be joined by Egypt and Tunisia and very soon by many other Arab states.
Islam is a religion, like Christianity, like Judaism. It has many forms, many sects, many different interpretations. This fanatical, fundamentalist interpretation which has been adopted by Al-Qaeda and such organizations belong to a lunatic fringe, which is very alien to the great masses of the Arab people throughout the world.
I think that if people [Muslims] in the United States or the United Kingdom and other places in Europe are becoming—some of them are becoming — … very anti-Western, it is, in part at least, a reaction to the treatment and the hatred they meet every day—they are being alienated. And if I were responsible for the government of the United States and the United Kingdom and France and Germany and other places, I would stop and start to think, maybe we are treating them the wrong way. Maybe we are not really giving them a feeling of belonging. Maybe we are putting them outside the pale and therefore giving a chance to extremists to recruit young people here and there who might be mobilized for, really, a terrorist organization.
Kathleen Wells: So let me ask you, you’ve been writing about this issue since before … I’d say as long as 64 years ago. In a brochure you distributed just two months before the outbreak of the 1948 war, you wrote that the “Zionist fathers” had two choices. Speak to how those choices are still relevant today, what they mean for Israel and her neighbors. And also speak to why Israel has taken … the Israeli government has taken this approach that it is taking today.
Uri Avnery: Well, the choice is relevant today no less, and maybe even more, than it was 60 or 100 years ago. The choice is: Do we consider ourselves a bridgehead of the West—of Europe and America—planted in the Middle East and in order to defend the West against the Asian peoples and the Arab peoples and the Muslim peoples? Or, are we a people, as Zionism from the beginning accepted, really people of Palestine—of this country—returning to their ancient homeland? Returning to our ancient homeland would mean that we identify with the peoples around us, that we are a part of region? We are not Europe. We are not America. We are Asia. We belong to the Middle East. We are a Middle Eastern people.
Now this is a choice, and I think this is a very stark choice at this very moment because, while the Arab masses are rising up all over the Middle East, do we identify with them? Do we support them? Do we encourage them? Do we call upon them to consider us their partners? Or, the other way around: Do we consider ourselves as a part of the West, which is afraid of the Arab peoples, of Arab democracy, of Arab free choice? This is a very, very important choice. It is a historic choice. It will have immense importance for the future of Israel. And, therefore, I and my friends very, very strongly come out for supporting the Arab revolution with all of our might, while our government is doing exactly the opposite.
The Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, said this week several times that this Arab uprising provides us with the opportunity—listen carefully: The opportunity is to ask America to give us $20 billion more for even more state-of-the-art weapons such as fighter bombers, missile boats, and submarine, and so on. Now, if this is the opportunity which he sees, he belongs to what Barack Obama called, “The wrong side of history.” History is moving in the other direction.
And if you ask me why our government is following this line—this is a long history—let me put it simply: We have a conflict which is going on already for 120 years, maybe 130 years. A fifth generation has been born into this conflict on both sides. All the hatred and distrust and demonization and prejudices and stereotypes [that] created such a conflict are governing the minds of many people. And it is more popular in Israel to create hatred and fear than to preach brotherhood and peace—reconciliation. This is not, I would say, not particular to Israel. I think the situation in the United States is not so vastly different. You have now, as I understand, a growing wave of anti-Islamic, anti-foreigner, anti-immigration ideology of the extreme right.
So this is not particular to Israel, but it is just the same in many European countries where neo-Nazi and fascist parties openly take an important role in politics. Yesterday, it was published that the fascist party in France, the Nationalist Front, with a new female leader, has been shown by public opinion polls to have a good chance of becoming the next president of France. She is gaining more votes than Sarkozy. So this rise of xenophobia, of hatred and fear of the foreigner, of the different, of other nations, of minorities—this is not something particular to Israel, but in Israel this … Everything becomes much more pronounced, much sharper because we are in the middle of a historic conflict. And it’s always … For demagogues and ordinary politicians, it’s always more popular to ride on waves of fear and hatred than to preach peace.
Kathleen Wells: Well, you say it’s a historic conflict. Wasn’t there a time, historically, when Arabs and Jews lived peacefully and united in that region?
Uri Avnery: You see, throughout history—for many, many centuries—there was a symbiosis between Islam and Judaism and between Muslims and Jews. While Europe was, throughout the Middle Ages and later, consumed by anti-Semitism when there was an endless chain of pogroms, of persecutions, of expulsions—and in the end the Holocaust—nothing of this kind ever happened in the Muslim world.
On the contrary, 500 years ago when the Jews were evicted from Spain, almost all of them went to Islamic countries and were welcomed by the Islamic people. And throughout the Middle East, you have Sephardic Jews—Jews who were descendants from those who were expelled from Spain. Until a hundred years ago, until the advent of Zionism, there never was a serious anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish problem in the Muslim world.
What happened is (this was a European problem, not a Muslim problem) that at the end of the 19th century, the new nationalism which came to the fore everywhere in Europe was from the beginning anti-Semitic. And Jews in Europe started to feel that there’s no future in Europe—that Europe is becoming a dangerous place for Jews. And, therefore, the Zionist movement came into being with an aim that the Jews will go somewhere and create a state of their own in which they will be safe. This was the essence of Zionism.
Unfortunately, the only place which the Zionists chose was the country of Palestine, which was not an empty country, where an Arab people were living for at least 13 centuries. And so, when the Zionists started to come to Palestine and to settle here, a conflict between these two people came into being. And as I said before, the choice, which the Zionists had in theory identified with the Arabs against their rulers or identified with the rulers against the Arabs—they made this choice, which I say was a virtual choice because, in reality, the Zionists were Europeans who came from Europe, which at that time was imbued with ideas of imperialism and colonialism, and they brought these ideas to Palestine.
So we have a conflict between … Let’s put it to you in the form of a picture, which was created by a historian called Isaac Doychev. He said, “Imagine a man living on the upper floor of a building. The building catches fire. In order to save his life, the man jumps from the window of his apartment and lands on top of somebody—of another person passing by on the street—and wounding him severely. And since then there’s a conflict between these two people, and who can judge who was right?”
Now, in general life, this is a good picture to explain what’s happening in our country. The Palestinians—the Palestinian Arabs—are certainly not to blame for what happened to the Jews in Europe. The Jews in Europe who came to Palestine, including my own parents, came to Palestine to save their lives. They would have been … If they had not come to Palestine, they would have been killed by the Nazis, like all my relatives who remained in Germany. So it’s a very tragic conflict. It’s very difficult to say which side was right. Probably both sides were right by their own light. Certainly, both sides are convinced that they were right.
The question is: What do we do with it today? How do we put an end to it? And I believe that the present situation in the Middle East presents us with a historic opportunity to choose the right side: to choose Arab freedom and democracy, to help the Arab people, to integrate ourselves into the framework of a new Middle East. And I would wish that American Jews would embrace this idea. Unfortunately, a great many American Jews consider it their duty to support any Israeli government, or even worse, embrace the extreme right in Israel. And the minority of American Jews, who see that this is the wrong course for Israel to take, are either silent or are being silenced, and I regret it very much.
Kathleen Wells: Let’s sort of elaborate on this notion as to what American Jews are doing. Are they … Are American Jews viewed in a … Well, you just mentioned from your perspective you don’t view what American Jews are doing in terms of embracing the Israeli government’s position as a good thing. What do most … What do the majority of Israeli Jews think about the majority of … What do the majority of Israeli Jews think about the majority of American Jews with regards to what the Israeli government is doing—it’s position on the Israel-Palestine issue? In other words, are you … In other words, are you a minority in your view regarding this?
Uri Avnery: Beg your pardon?
Kathleen Wells: In other words, are you sort of like a Lone Ranger with this particular position—regarding American Jews position, regarding the Israeli government? Or do most Israeli …
Uri Avnery: I have been many times in the United States speaking to American Jewish audiences. I always found that there are a lot of people who object to the policy of our government but are afraid to say so. They are afraid that if they criticize the government of Israel they will be considered sympathetic to anti-Semites, who criticize Israel for completely different reasons. So they keep quiet, perhaps leave their Jewish community all together, while those who are active—a small minority which is really active and vociferous—support the extreme right.
There are a lot of American Jewish billionaires who are supporting the worst fascist elements in Israel, who are investing their money in creating war, in fostering war, in preventing peace, in supporting settlements in East Jerusalem, in supporting settlements in … all over the West Bank. While those who support peace either think it’s wiser to keep quiet, or if they do organize like an organization called J Street, they are being defamed as anti-Israeli, anti-Jewish, anti-Semitic, self-hating Jews and things like that. And they don’t seem to have much impact on the American administration.
Let me add one sentence which I consider extremely important in this context. America—the United States’ administration—officially condemned the settlements in the occupied territories, and rightly so, because every settlement is a land mine on the way to peace. The only reason to establish settlements in the West Bank is to prevent the West Bank from becoming a Palestinian state, which is a precondition to any peace between us and the Arab world.
Now, there is a curious phenomenon, which is ignored in the United States. Namely, all these settlements are created with the money of the American taxpayer in the following way: They are supported by American organizations—which officially are charitable organizations, which means that all the money donated to them is exempt from American income tax, which means that the American taxpayer—the beneficiary of American income tax—is really financing a great part of these settlements, much to the chagrin of those of us in Israel who believe that the settlements are leading us our to destruction.
Kathleen Wells: Well, you know, this is a conundrum because this debate—this issue—is not addressed in the American media. I think that most Americans aren’t even aware that this is taking place, that their taxpayer dollars are being spent on the expansion of Israeli settlements. So how can this be resolved?
Uri Avnery: Because the American media—electronic and printed—are mostly afraid of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, which, by the way, is not only Jewish, it is also Christian Evangelical. This American Church Evangelists—I don’t know how to pronounce it. This whole bunch of them who believe that the second coming of Jesus depends on the Jews gathering in Israel—in Palestine—they never speak about the next part of their program, namely, that when the second coming arrives, all the Jews will become either Christians or will be annihilated. They never speak about that.
But they do support—the right wing, the worst, the worst, I think, elements in Israel—the settlements. Just now there is a new program where one of them is supporting bringing masses of Jews from all over the world for a trip to Israel and a trip for the indoctrination against peace and against the Palestinian people—against the Palestinian state and for the settlements. Elements of the American public and American politics are having disastrous influence on events in Israel.
Kathleen Wells: And so you have the Jewish lobbies, like AIPAC and other Jewish organizations and federations, and then you have what we call the Christian Zionist. And yet Zionism is secular; it’s not religious. How do we reconcile this?
Uri Avnery: Yes, it’s a good question, but it’s a fact. These American Christian Zionists, who are the worst of all (I must say I despise them, I detest them) because they are driving Israel into war in which they will not be killed and their sons and daughters will not fight. It’s our sons and daughters who will fight, who are driven by these detestable, obnoxious, fanatical, fundamentalist elements in America—are driven into an eternal conflict with the Arab world which we have no chance of winning, because generations will come with a different … and the balance of power will be shifting.
We are a small minority in the huge Middle East, which is now awakening. So they sit there somewhere in Los Angeles, or I don’t know where, giving their money to fascist elements in Israel who sabotage peace, who do not want peace, who want a greater Israel in an eternal war with the Arab world, which our sons and grandsons will have to fight out. I can’t imagine something more despicable than that.
Kathleen Wells: It’s very tragic and it’s very … And I know that your family members, specifically your brother, fought in the war, the 1948 War. Is that correct?
Uri Avnery: I fought in 1948. I was a soldier in the Special Forces. I was severely wounded. I was saved by a miracle, by my own soldiers who got me out of a hopeless place after I was wounded. My brother fought in the World War in the British Army against the Nazis and was killed in the war. So I know what war means. And I detest war.
Kathleen Wells: Okay. So in terms of the two-state solution, is this … What is your position about the two-state solution and Palestinians right of return?
Uri Avnery: Well, you know when I was a member of the Knesset for many years, and once a Knesset member stood up and accused me of inventing the two-state solution. I’ve been an advocate of the two-state solution since 1948.
As a soldier in that war, I was completely convinced that, if we don’t make peace with the Palestinian people—the Arab-Palestinian people—we shall never have peace. And since then, I advocate this idea in the strongest possible terms. And I must tell you this is an optimistic story, because when my friends and I put forward this idea in early 1949 just after the end of the war—Israel’s War for Independence—there were not a hundred people in Israel and the entire world who supported this idea. And now it’s a worldwide consensus, shared by all the world’s great powers—United Nations, European Union, Russia, China and whoever.
This is the only solution. There is no other solution. When two people are fighting over the same country and consider this country their homeland, the only way to make peace and co-existence possible is to divide—to partition—the country into Israel as it was before 1967 in its old borders and the Palestinian state to be set up in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with East … Arab East Jerusalem as its capital. This is not only the best solution, it’s the only solution. There is no other solution—no other realistic solution—lying on the table.
On the other hand, this solution is now … The details of this solution are now very clear, because they have been discussed and debated for many thousands of hours in conferences—peace conferences, intellectual academic conferences, and so on. We know exactly what the terms are. Anyone who really wants peace knows exactly what the terms are—terms which are acceptable to both parties, which safeguard the basic national interest of both parties, which give each of the two parties independence and freedom and the chance for living a dignified life.
And this is supported now by all the Arab countries officially. There’s an Arab peace plan lying on the table already for ten years which exactly reiterates these terms. So it’s all there. What is lacking is the political will and political leadership determined to put this into effect.
Kathleen Wells: What you say what is lacking is the political will. The Palestine papers … The Palestinian papers revealed that things aren’t as we necessarily seem to think they are regarding the peace process. Netanyahu has characterized the Palestinian Authority or has characterized the negotiating partner on the Palestinian side as absent.
Uri Avnery: Well, this is all propaganda, of course. These are empty slogans which have no connection at all with reality. The Palestinian people have an elected leadership—an elected President, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas. And all parts of the Palestinian people, including Hamas, agree that Mr. Mahmoud Abbas will conduct the negotiations with Israel. Hamas, which is the most extreme part of the Palestinian people, have officially declared more than once that, if Mr. Mahmoud Abbas comes to an agreement with Israel and if this agreement will be ratified in the referendum of the Palestinian people, as it undoubtedly will, Hamas will accept it as the expression of the will of the people.
So, on the Palestinian side, there is a partner waiting, supported by the entire Arab world, waiting for peace negotiations to start. They cannot start as long as the government of Israel is continuing to build settlements on the very territory about which the negotiations are to be conducted. What is left to negotiate? The negotiations will be about the creation of the Palestinian state next to Israel in the occupied territories of the West Bank.
If Israel—the government of Israel—is building settlements on the very land on which the Palestinian state is supposed to be established, what sense is there in negotiations? This is what the Palestinians say and this is what we are saying. It has been said, it’s like negotiating about a pizza and in the meantime the government of Israel is eating the pizza. You cannot negotiate about peace as a two-state solution and, in the meantime, build settlements on the land on which the Palestinian state is supposed to be established.
Kathleen Wells: And let me ask you again, what do you think about the right of return for Palestinians?
Uri Avnery: Well, this is a tragic problem. I told you I was a soldier in the War of 1948 when these Palestinians where led to flee their country and their homes. In the chain of tragic events which are very complex, it’s very unjust to say it happened like this and this and this. It was a very complex thing—an outcome of a tragic war. Now, there are about five million Palestinian refugees living outside Israel today. To let them come back to Israeli territory would mean that Israel becomes a different country. There will never be a majority in Israel to agree to that.
So what we have to do is to find a very complicated solution to this very, very tragic problem. It’s not an abstract problem; it concerns five million human beings—men, women and children. Now I’ve devised a plan for it, which I believe is acceptable. I’ve spoken with Palestinian leaders about it, including Yasser Arafat who had become a kind of friend to me. The plan is that a great part—the large part of the refugees—will be settled in the state of Palestine, which is another reason that the state of Palestine must become as big as possible in order to absorb these refugees, in order to establish a viable economy, and it must be financed by international funds.
Another large part of refugees will probably, given the choice, remain where they are, where they already have established their existence for 60 years, but they must get generous indemnities so as to attain an honorable existence. I believe that some refugees—a certain number, a certain agreed number of refugees—must be allowed to come back to Israel, even as a symbolic gesture to heal this historic wound. Now, what I am saying is not far-fetched. It’s more or less perfectly agreed by the Palestinians themselves. The official formula for the solution of the refugee problem is that there will be a just and agreed solution—agreed by Israel, which means that it will be more or less on the lines which I’ve now just outlined.
Kathleen Wells: What is the likelihood of that occurring, of that scenario taking place? What’s the likelihood?
Uri Avnery: Look, if there is a leadership on both sides which wants peace, peace can be worked out in one or two months. [chuckle]. I told you, all the terms—all the terms, all the requirements—are lying on the table. We all know them by heart by now. We have heard them hundreds of times. We’ve written them hundreds of times. I myself have written about it dozen of times and so have many others. So once you want peace, it’s not so very difficult to achieve.
Kathleen Wells: So, essentially what you are saying is that Netanyahu doesn’t want peace, and the Israeli people do not … And the …
Uri Avnery: Of course not. Every single act of his … Here, yesterday he has invited a party called the Nationalist Front—which includes openly, avowedly, fascist elements—to join his government. Fortunately, they have refused.
He has yesterday appointed a former army officer who belongs to the most extreme, extreme anti-Arab fringe as a chief of the National Security Council. Every single act of his—everyday—cries out that he doesn’t want peace. He doesn’t want peace, not because anyone dislikes peace as such. It’s all about the settlements. This must be clearly understood. Peace means—any kind of peace—means the removal of the settlements from the occupied Palestinian territories.
So the choice for any Israeli Prime Minister is: Do we make peace with the Palestinians and remove the settlers, which is politically very difficult? You need a lot of courage to do it. Ariel Sharon, our former Prime Minister, who was a very popular army general, removed some settlements from the Gaza Strip and there was a terrible outcry. You need to be ten times more courageous to make peace and remove the settlements from the West Bank, and, by the way, also from the Golan Heights, if you want to make peace with Syria.
So the question for a Prime Minister is: Do we make peace with the Palestinians and risk this fight with the settlers and their helpers and accomplices, or do we go on building more settlements and to hell with peace? Mr. Netanyahu has clearly chosen the second course—clearly, because when President Obama asked him to stop building the settlements for a few months—for three months, actually—and promised him huge sums of arms and money—huge amounts of arms and huge sums of money—in return for just stopping the building of the settlements for three months, Mr. Netanyahu refused. So there can be no doubt about where he stands.
Kathleen Wells: Well, the Israeli people elected him.
Uri Avnery: Yes, they did, unfortunately. I’m not sure if the people who elected him … Did all of them clearly realize what they are electing and what the results will be?
In order to understand and judge the Israeli people, there are two basic facts here. One, the great majority of … The large majority of the Israeli public wants peace with the Palestinians and is ready for a two-state solution and ready to pay the price. But almost everybody in Israel has now been convinced that we have no partner for peace, that the Palestinians do not want peace, that the Arabs will never make peace with Israel and therefore we have no choice.
If you put these two things together, you understand what’s happening to Israel and why a person like Netanyahu can be our prime minister.
Kathleen Wells: Well, let me ask you one last question. I know that Netanyahu wants to have the Palestinian people recognize Israel as a Jewish state. But that same requirement isn’t necessarily asked of the Israeli people. Discuss that distinction for me.
Uri Avnery: For me, this is complete nonsense. It’s like demanding that one makes an agreement with Mexico on the condition that Mexico recognize the United States as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant country. It’s nonsense. First of all, it does not concern the Palestinians. Whether we want to be a Jewish state or a Buddhist state or an atheist state or whatever does not concern the Palestinians. It’s our choice. We Israelis must decide what kind of state we want to have. And there is a discussion in Israel about it.
There are a lot of people like myself who believe that Israel should be an Israeli state—that we have created an Israeli nation. Certainly a part of the world Jewish people, but a different nation, like Canada or Australia or New Zealand are different nations from Great Britain. It’s a debate in Israel, a very interesting debate which will go on for a long time to come.
But what has this got to do with the Palestinians? The Palestinians must recognize Israel as it is. You don’t have to recognize the United States as a capitalist country or as a Christian country or a white country or whatever. You have to recognize the United States of America. Everything else will be decided by the citizens of the United States of America. This demand is what the British call a “red herring”. It’s only there to provoke and to prevent the Palestinians to start negotiations about this peace settlement. It’s a precondition which no Palestinian can accept—it must be understood why. Every fifth Israeli is an Arab, an Arab Palestinians. Twenty percent of the citizens of Israel—citizens, not inhabitants—citizens of Israel are Palestinian Arabs.
Now, for the Palestinian Authority to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people means that it sticks a knife in the back of their brothers who are citizens of Israel, because if this is a state of the Jewish people, where are the Arab citizens of Israel? It’s a very complicated situation and therefore a complicated problem. But knowing that no Palestinian leader could possibly sign a document like that and putting forward this demand means that you don’t want them to come into negotiations.
Kathleen Wells: Now when the U.N. created Israel, did they create it in 1947 as a Jewish state?
Uri Avnery: We didn’t even think about it. They did not speak about a Jewish state. People of my generation … I am 87 years old; I was 24 when the state of Israel was created. Before the state of Israel was created, no one ever spoke about a Jewish state. We spoke about a Hebrew state. Why Hebrew? Because we wanted to distinguish between what we are doing in our country and the existence of Jews everywhere else.
American Jews and Israeli Jews don’t belong to the same nation. They belong to the same people but Americans will very strongly deny that they belong to an Israeli nation. They belong to an American nation. They serve in the American army, not in the Israeli army. They pay taxes to the United States of America, not to the Israeli treasury. We are two different nations. So what we are saying is we are an Israeli nation. The people of Israel are an Israeli nation.
And anyone joins the American nation and becomes an heir to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln the moment he receives American citizenship. So anyone who receives Israeli citizenship becomes an Israeli and belongs to the Israeli nation. This is our idea. It has always been, has been … In ’48 it was much more clear than it is today. At that time, there was no question at all about it.
Kathleen Wells: Because you know if you’re characterized as a Jewish state, doesn’t it raise issues as to whether or not it is a democracy? Is that issue raised?
Uri Avnery: This issue has been raised. It is clear this definition of a state as a Jewish state—of a Muslim state … Pakistan is officially a Muslim state. To define a country by ethnic or religious definitions is a very bad thing. It’s not an accident that the founders of the United States of America did not put anything like this into the American Constitution. On the contrary, they demanded total separation between state and religion.
No state which accepts an official religion as its basis—as it’s raison d’ etre, as its very reason for being—no state like this can be democratic. Of course not. Because in a Jewish state, no one who is not a Jew can properly be a full-fledged member of the state. We have in Israel, not only a million and half non-Jewish Arabs, we also have 400,000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jewish, who came with Jewish relatives. Now, this is a big problem. They’re lying in our belly and they’re not being absorbed. They are not being digested, because they are not Jews. And this whole unfortunate debate, which I consider completely superfluous: we must get rid of all these definitions. We are the state of Israel. Every Israeli citizen is an Israeli, belongs to the Israeli nation. And they can be Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or Confucian, or whatever, as far as I am concerned. It doesn’t concern us as the State of Israel.
Kathleen Wells: Okay, well, Uri, I really appreciate you taking the time. I think this is excellent, excellent, excellent. I appreciate. I think you’re very courageous.
Uri Avnery: Thank you very much. If you write anything about it, will you please send it to me?
Kathleen Wells: Oh, most definitely.
Uri Avnery: Thank you very much.
Kathleen Wells: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.