In most measurable ways, Uri Avnery, who passed away last night in Tel Aviv, failed in his career.
As a journalist, he kept his weekly magazine Ha’Olam Ha’Ze ("This World") alive, most of the time on life-support, for four decades, but it never managed to break into the mainstream, selling at its peak five thousand copies. In 1990, he sold it to a right-wing businessman who closed it down three years later.
The political parties he founded or joined lasted even shorter periods and the left-wing movement Avnery founded in 1993, Gush Shalom (Peace bloc), still exists, but has never had much of an influence in the crowded field of Israeli peace organizations.
But Avnery mattered. In nearly seven decades as a writer, journalist and activist, he left a mark on Israeli politics with lasting effects, far more powerful than many much more successful politicians and newspaper editors will leave in their lifetimes.
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As the man who was Ha’Olam Ha’Ze for forty years, Avnery not only taught a generation of journalists, who then went on to work in the more “respectable” news organizations, how to constantly confront the powers that be, but set a standard that over the decades would be replicated across a much wider swathe of the Israeli media.
Israeli journalism today is combative and contrary, largely due to Avnery’s example. Even when many journalists didn’t want to work there, seeking pay and fame in more stable venues, they wanted to write like Ha’Olam Ha’Ze’s reporters. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the only newspaper carrying out serious investigative journalism, targeting not only the Mapai (Labor) government and its cronies in the business community, but the security establishment, which was unthinkable anywhere else during those decades.
Ha’Olam Ha’Ze’s motto was “without fear, without showing favor,” and it didn’t always follow those rules. Avnery decided not to cause damage to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1977, and opted not to publish the details of the Rabin couple’s illegal bank account (it was published subsequently in Haaretz by Dan Margalit who began his career at Ha’Olam Ha’Ze).
But Avnery’s paper had slaughtered holy cows before anyone, setting the example for a new generation of Israeli journalists from the 1973 onwards, when in the post-Yom Kippur War period, the rest of the media began asking tough questions. Most Israeli journalists today began their careers after Ha’Olam Ha’Ze closed down, but whenever they try to speak truth to power, they have Avnery to thank for showing them the way.
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. And in recent years, when many of those who admired him abandoned faith in a two-state solution and began supporting one-state ideas, he rejected them out of hand. Israelis and Palestinians were both too “nationalistic” he said, for such a state ever to be viable in the foreseeable future.
A foreign journalist asked me today why Avnery gets so much credit for pushing the two-state solution when after all, that was the base of the original UN partition resolution passed in 1947. What few remember today is that in 1949, with Israel’s War of Independence over and most of the Arab residents of Mandatory Palestine dispersed, there was no talk of a Palestinian state in the future. Not just within Israeli society, but on the Arab side as well. The West Bank was in Jordanian hands and Gaza was ruled by Egypt. Neither of them made a move towards supporting Palestinian sovereignty there.
Avnery, from the early 1950s, long before any talk of a Palestinian state by Israel’s side became fashionable, even among the left, supported a two-state solution. On a deeper level, he was the first Israeli public figure, in a generation when the Palestinians were perceived as indistinguishable from the wider Arab nation, to call upon other Israelis to see the Palestinians as a distinct nation, living beside them. He did so in his second book on the Independence War, “The Other Side of the Coin.” While his first one, “In the Fields of the Philistines, 1948” was an acclaimed bestseller, the second book was vilified by many and Avnery claimed that David Ben Gurion’s government tried to prevent its publication with claims there was a paper-shortage.
When he summed up his life, Avnery said, among other things, “I was never arrested.” But Jewish dissidents in Israel very rarely are. Avnery, however, suffered intimidation in other ways, including violent attacks by anonymous thugs. In a period where once again, the use of the Shin Bet by the government for political purposes is on the agenda, it’s worth recalling that under Ben Gurion, the Shin Bet was used to keep tabs on Avnery and Ha’Olam Ha’Ze, and for two years in the late 1950s, was even behind the publication of Rimon, a competing weekly that tried to put Ha’Olam Ha’Ze out of business.
He was never part of the Israeli mainstream media, which despite its combativeness, was always too close to the establishment for his taste. Neither could he fit into a political party. He was too radical for the comfortable Israeli left and while he met with Yasser Arafat while it was still illegal under Israeli law, could not be regarded part of the anti-Zionist camp as he never believed the establishment of the Jewish state was an act of evil or rejected its founding principles.
In the last interview he gave the Israeli media in April he said “the state of Israel will exist in another fifty years, because you can’t destroy states nowadays. If it will be a state worth living or being proud of is another question.” But he remained optimistic (the name of his autobiography) that Israelis and the Palestinians could eventually build a better future.
In one of his last columns for Haaretz, he rejected the notion that the BDS movement, or any other form of external pressure, could help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I profoundly reject the argument that there is nothing we can do to save the state, and that we must trust foreigners to do our job for us. Israel is our state. We are responsible for it."
Avnery was never arrested. He was too Jewish, too Ashkenazi, too much of a war-hero and part of Tel Aviv society for that to happen. But he laid the foundations for political dissent, by people from his own privileged section of Israeli society. Ultimately, that was his greatest contribution to Israel’s fragile and circumscribed democracy.