I meet Uri Avnery in his modest Tel Aviv apartment. He is dressed completely in black – a man of presence and intellect. He says he is almost 80 – exactly five years older than Arafat and Sharon who are the same age. He doesn’t need much prompting to let you know what he thinks. Avnery has seen them come and seen them go. He was here in the beginning – fought with the Irgun to create the state of Israel back in the 1940s. ‘You can’t tell me about terrorism, I was a terrorist.’ He has been a leading national journalist and a member of the Knesset. Today he is the senior statesman of the Israeli peace movement. He helped pull together the Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) and is its best-known spokesperson. Gush recently helped organize a huge demonstration (60,000 to 100,000 people) to oppose the occupation. He refers to himself these days as a post-Zionist. When it was hardly possible to admit the existence of Palestinians he was recommending a two-state solution. He was one of the first Israelis to meet with representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization when it was illegal. He knows personally all of the major players of Israeli politics (and on the Palestinian side too) and is more than blunt in his opinions about them. The current Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, he refers to as a ‘completely worthless person’. The former Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, he dismisses as a crook: ‘I am not afraid of crooks. I am afraid of men like Sharon.’
He has more respect for Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, whom he refers to as ‘serious men’. The latter he feels is deeply amoral in the pursuit of his goals and has no interest in making any settlement at all with the Palestinians. On the contrary, Avnery believes that he wants war with them. He sees Sharon as the last leader of a movement for Jewish liberation, the élan of which is dying out. For Avnery the clash in the Middle East is not between two nation states but between two liberation movements, which accounts for both its intransigence and its brutality. ‘When you are in a war of liberation different sets of values apply than in a conflict between existing states.’ When I asked him if he was not bothered by the suicide bombings, he is again characteristically to the point. ‘No more than any other kind of violence. It is a product of the vast disparity of force between the two sides.’ Surprisingly Avnery is optimistic about the chances for peace: ‘A product of my age and my temperament.’ He sees the Israelis as basically having no choice but to make a deal with the Palestinians, even though he thinks 90 per cent of the population would like a country without any Arab population at all. But he also feels it will take a strong break with the past to accomplish it. He is fond of quoting Lloyd George’s famous phrase that ‘one cannot cross an abyss in two jumps’.
Avnery’s eyes dance as he sees me off with a joke about the settlers: ‘It’s like someone parachuting into the middle of a village and yelling “Help, I’m surrounded on all sides, send in the army!”’