The Man Who Knows Too Much: A Reply to Op-ed by Shlomo Avineri

Already in his political science class 50 years ago, there were students who felt that Avineri was presenting a holistic, absolute version of things devoid of doubt.

uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman
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Just before the two-state solution died: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Palestinian leader Yassar Arafat enjoy a moment at Camp David, July 20, 2000.Credit: AP
uzi benziman
Uzi Benziman

In the 1960s, there was a young, brilliant, charismatic lecturer filling the political science department’s lecture halls at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus. Shlomo Avineri mesmerized the students with the breadth of his knowledge and the sharpness of his analysis in lectures on political thought.

Avineri would shower his audience with quotes and the names of philosophers and thinkers whose names and theories the students had not been exposed to before, and impart his insights on the thinkers’ beliefs and their contribution to the understanding of the behavior of countries and societies. It was enlightening, and yet the way in which he conducted himself in front of his audience, the decisiveness with which he spoke, the rich knowledge that he demonstrated, also created a feeling of unease here and there. There were students who felt that Avineri was engaging in manipulation with them; that he was taking advantage, in a manner than was not entirely fair, of the disparity between his education and theirs; that he was presenting a holistic, absolute version of things that was devoid of doubt.

That was until a philosophy student happened to attend one of his classes, a student who knew something of the writings of philosophers Hegel, Hobbes and Locke, and posed a question or two for the teacher. Avineri then found himself clearing his throat a bit and pausing a little before answering.

The tenor of the lessons in that political science class 50 years ago came to mind when I read Avineri’s most recent Haaretz article. Again, here was the decisive, firm, unhesitating perspective, holding that there is no prospect for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to the refusal that he attributes to the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. And again, he threw in information and references from around the world in support of his arguments. Without pretending to be the philosophy student who undermined Avineri’s confidence a little in class, I would, in what appears below, like to ponder his conclusions.

* Avineri concludes that the Oslo Accords were a failure mainly due to the basic refusal of the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But here’s some food for thought: To what extent did the agreement also fail due to the refusal of the State of Israel to give up the West Bank?

* The negotiations conducted by Prime Minister Ehud Barak with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat at Camp David did not work out, Avineri says, because the Palestinians perceived the Jews, including those living in the State of Israel, as simply a religious community. It’s not known what Avineri bases this conclusion on: The memoirs, books and testimony of the Israeli participants in the negotiations (for example, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Gilead Sher, Ron Pundak and Shaul Arieli), not to mention the accounts of the Palestinian and American participants, paint a much more complex picture as to the reasons for the failure, the most prominent feature being the territorial dispute. And Barak’s conduct of the talks and his concerns that his narrow government coalition would fall apart if he would compromise with his Palestinian interlocutor had up to now been considered a significant component in the negative outcome.

* The Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state was also a fundamental cause for the demise of talks between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Avineri contends, without indicating what he bases his conclusion on. Public reports from recent years on the Olmert-Abbas talks and on negotiations between Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat demonstrate that Olmert had indeed gone further in meeting Palestinian demands than all his predecessors, but the territorial dispute remained a sticking point. These sources also show that Olmert offered the Palestinian side the most decisive concession as prime minister when he was on the way out of office.

* The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is similar in its makeup to other conflicts that have not been resolved, as Avineri notes in his article, in which the stumbling block was the refusal of one side to recognize the national legitimacy of its adversary. Avineri also adds that all these ongoing confrontations have a religious dimension relating to holy sites, as they are viewed by the other side. A reader might wonder, however, about all of the national struggles in history (including those with a religious element) that were ultimately resolved. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was the latest of such successful efforts.

* Avineri also calls the readiness to rely on the Arab League Initiative, a peace plan first proposed in 2002, an illusion, and explains his stance as follows: Look at the condition that at least four Arab League members have descended into (apparently referring to Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen). His conclusion? The Arab League is an organization that cannot be relied upon. But that prompts an innocent question: And what would have happened if Israel had accepted the Arab League initiative at the time? Who knows how things would have developed in the Middle East under such circumstances. After all, as Avineri sees it from what is implied in his article, Israel should refrain from coming to any agreement with any of the Arab states or with the Palestinians since it is impossible to know what abyss will befall them. By such logic, Israel should suspend any decision on relations with the Arab world for the indefinite future, until it comes to the conclusion that they have achieved the stability and readiness for concessions that are sufficient for Israel to try to settle the conflict and take upon itself the risks involved in a peace agreement.

Avineri also proposes a series of practical interim steps to ease current tensions between Israel and the Palestinians and advance the prospects for achieving a historic reconciliation, as he described it. In the process, he leads himself into a maze that even his students from 50 years ago would not manage to extract themselves from. If his analysis of the determinist nature of Palestinian opposition to Israel is valid, what point is there in carrying out interim measures? After all, the unavoidable conclusion that necessarily must be drawn from Avineri’s stance is to identify with the extreme right in Israel, which perceives the Palestinian demand for self-determination as an existential threat to the Zionist enterprise.

I’m afraid that in 2015 Avineri has come to the same analysis that political scientist Meron Benvenisti came to in 1981, to the effect that Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank was irreversible. But while Benvenisti attributed the process to an Israeli craving for more land, Avineri believes that the fundamental cause is a mental block on the Palestinians’ part that prevents them from recognizing the right of the Israeli nation to exist.

For an average reader like myself, it’s easier to adhere to a specific notion, even at the expense of the repression of other views, that it is better to strive for a solution to the conflict in our own time and not wait for the end of days. And as a first step, Israel should declare its readiness to sign a peace agreement based on the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders and see how the Palestinians respond. Would they then also wave around their refusal to recognize Israeli nationality?

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