Why I changed my mind

By Uri Avnery


Tishrei 16, 5765

Not long ago a European interviewer asked me: "In your youth you were a member of the (right wing) Irgun. Now you belong to the radical peace camp. When did you move from the one extreme to the other? At what moment did this happen?"

He was very disappointed when I told him that there was no such dramatic moment. There was no leap, like Nahshon's leap into the Red Sea, over a gaping abyss. I enlisted in the Irgun around the time of my 15th birthday. I was an independent lad, already working to earn my own living, and I had a crystallized opinion: that British rule had to be expelled from the Land of Israel. The days were the days of the "disturbances" (as we called the Arab revolt at that time), and the policy of "restraint" that was being followed by the leaders of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine) was unsuited to my temperament. This led me to the most extremist underground that existed then.

As I sat facing the blinding spotlight of the acceptance committee, they asked me whether I hated the Arabs. I said "No" and I felt a silence fall on the dark room. They asked me whether I hated the English. Again I answered "No," and again an astonished silence prevailed. But they accepted me into the Irgun. However, my path from the Irgun to Ha'olam Hazeh ["This World" - the radical paper that Avnery founded and edited - Ed.], which preached the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel, looks completely natural to me.

That same interviewer inquired as to how this could be.

I explained it to him. I am a national individual. I believe that at the current stage of the development of human society, the individual's need to belong to a national group is a natural characteristic. A person needs a feeling of "belonging." He wants to be part of a nation of which he can be proud, and which will defend him. This is how I felt as a lad, and this is what brought me to the Irgun.

But a national person is not a nationalist person. A nationalist person says: "We and none other. My people at the expense of other peoples. We are uber alles - above everyone else.

Even then I understood that a national person is not only aware of his own national identity but also respects the national identity of the other.

I quit the Irgun when I realized that it was totally insensitive to the national rights of the Palestinian people and did not even recognize its existence. And I, the lad of that time, very much admired the analytical skill of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who in his article "The Iron Wall" acknowledged the existence of an Arab-Palestinian national entity and even jeered at the Zionist leaders who ignored it. However, I could not accept his solution - to break their resistance by force. I matured. What looked right to me at the age of 15 looked wrong to me at the age of 20.

After I quit the Irgun, I tried to deal with reality as I saw it: that in this country there are two national groups, each of which sees the entire land as its homeland. The Zionist movement denied, of course, that there is an Arab-Palestinian people. Poet Yonatan Ratosh's "Canaanites" also denied the fact of the existence of Arab nationalism in general and Palestinian nationalism in particular. The few who acknowledged the problem proposed a "bi-national state," a solution in which I did not believe at the time and in which I do not believe today.

At the time, I developed a different idea. If there are two national groups who see this land as their homeland - why not try to blend them into a single national movement based on the love of the land? Why not establish a joint educational system, in which the students would learn to identify with the history of the land in all its periods - the Canaanite and the Israelite, the Greek and the Roman, the Arab and the Crusader, the Mameluke and the Ottoman, up until the Hebrew and Palestinian national movements of our own time?

This idea was the outgrowth of my belief that in this land we constitute a new nation, a Hebrew nation. But unlike the Canaanites, I did not think that we had to deny our connection to the Jewish diaspora. On the contrary, I thought that the new Hebrew nation belongs to the Jewish people, but it is an independent and separate part (over this issue I had terrible arguments with Ratosh, who afterward never spoke to me until his dying day).

I thought that our national history had to be connected to the land, instead of wandering the world from pogrom to pogrom, and that the Palestinians' national history also had to be connected to the land, instead of divagating to the Arab Peninsula. Then, out of a shared homeland fate, we would be able to join in a shared national movement and fight for the liberation of the land from the British and for our common life here. This was a daring, almost unprecedented idea (Switzerland?), but in those days we believed we could do anything, if only we wanted to.

These ideas were at the basis of an ideological group that I established (together with Amos Elon, Michael Almaz and others) in 1946. It was officially called in Hebrew The Young Land of Israel (and in Arabic, Falastin al Fattat, but was commonly known as Kvutzat Bamaavak (Struggle Group), after the title of our publication, which reverberated largely, and mostly negatively, in the small Yishuv of the time. Moshe Shamir, who at the time was an extreme Marxist, punningly called it "Bamat Avak" (Dust Stage).

The 1948 war changed everything. With regret I gave up the idea of the joint national movement. As a fighter in the Samson's Foxes special operations unit I stood face to face with the reality of the Palestinian people. I was witness to the creation of the Nakba (the Palestinian term for their catastrophe of 1948). When I was wounded at the end of the war and lying in the hospital, I had a lot of time to think about the new situation. I reached a number of definite conclusions that have guided me since then: 1. The existence of the Palestinian people is an irreversible fact. 2. The partition of the land is an irreversible fact. 3. We shall never achieve tranquillity if an independent Palestinian state does not arise alongside our new State of Israel.

I do not think that the idea of two states, which has now become an international consensus, had a dozen proponents at that time in Israel or in the entire world. I wrote and I spoke hundreds of thousands of words about it, particularly in Ha'olam Hazeh and in the Knesset. On the fifth day of the Six- Day War I proposed to prime minister Levi Eshkol that he take immediate steps to enable the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Over the years I have participated in the founding of a number of organizations that preached this idea.

In all the plans to which I have been partner between then and now, the two-state idea has included the principle that "the border between the State of Israel and the State of Palestine will remain open." Even when in 1995 Gush Shalom coined the slogan "Jerusalem - capital of the two states," in close cooperation with the late Feisal Husseini, we insisted that Jerusalem would remain united in the physical sense and there would be no walls and barbed wire fences in it.

Therefore I have been wholeheartedly opposed to the separation wall. I would have rejected it even if it were to have gone up right on the Green Line (the pre-Six Day War border). I think that the very idea of a wall is counter to the very spirit of peace, without which no actual peace will arise. But recently I have become convinced that here I must make a tactical concession. It is impossible to ignore the real fear of suicide bombings, which is the lot of most of the Israeli public. Therefore I am now prepared to support the erection of the wall-fence, as a definitely temporary means, along the Green Line - on condition that it nowhere invade the territory of the West Bank. I think that it is possible to convince most of the Israeli public of this.

I am optimistic, as I have been my entire life. The ideas for which I have fought - that it is necessary to recognize the existence of the Palestinian people, that a Palestinian state is necessary alongside the State of Israel, that it is necessary to negotiate with the Palestinian Liberation organization and more - have proven victorious all along the line.

After all the walls are dismantled and all of the deceptive magic tricks of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his ilk collapse, one basic, crucial, determining fact will remain: We are here and we will remain here. The Palestinians are here and they will remain here. They will not exterminate us and we will not exterminate them. The idea of ethnic cleansing is a delusional nightmare.

However, we will not be able to live together in a shared binational state - a utopia that has no basis in reality after all that has happened between us during the past 120 years. Of late this position has made me the target of attacks by those circles in Israel and in Europe that have despaired of the two-state solution and have gone back to the idea of a binational state. But the Israelis will not agree to the dismantling of their state and the Palestinians will not relinquish the establishment of their state.

This is not always clear to part of the European left, to which it appears that after 50 years of peace the nationalist era has passed. Now and then they accuse me of being an Israeli nationalist. I once told an audience in Berlin: "When you and the French dismantle your states and unite into a single state, then we'll do that too."

There is only one practical solution: Israel and Palestine, two states for two peoples, each of them under its own flag and its own government, but the alliance between them will grow closer over the years, in a natural process. When the entire world advances beyond narrow nationalism to a new international order, we too will no doubt be in the front rank.

It is necessary to be clear: Nationalism is the enemy of a nation, a cancerous growth on its body. It adopts for itself national flags and symbols in order to destroy them from within. This is what European fascism did. This is what has happened in many places in Asia and in Africa. Therefore many good people are ashamed to display their national identity. But this is a mistaken approach.

I aspire to a change in the face of Israel so that it will be a humane, secular, democratic, pluralist, egalitarian, liberal anti-racist state, a state with a Hebrew majority but one in which all its citizens are true partners, a state that lives in peace and that is open to the world - a state of which I can be proud.

I am aiming for a situation in which I will again be able to declare with my back held straight and my head held high: I am an Israeli.

The writer is a novelist and journalist, and head of the Gush Shalom (Bloc of Peace) movement.