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Hope springs eternal for veteran Israeli peacenik

Aug. 1, 2011 11:24 A.M. (Updated: Aug. 3, 2011 4:57 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- For Uri Avnery, seen by some as the backbone of Israel's dwindling peace movement, hope for peace with the Palestinians springs eternal, despite stalled talks and the rising power of the Israeli right wing.

At 87, he can recount decades of experience pushing his fellow Israelis towards a lasting peace deal with the Palestinians, and has no time for those who say an accord is as far away now as ever.

"I remain optimistic because I believe in the ability of the [Israeli] people to change course," Avnery told AFP, pointing to a wave of demonstrations in recent weeks protesting Israel's high cost of living and wide income disparity.

"When protesters take to the streets chanting 'the people want social justice,' they are repeating the slogans of Tahrir Square in Cairo," he said, referring to the stronghold of demonstrators who overthrew former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

He acknowledges that the motley coalition of struggling parents, young couples, overworked doctors and other seeking economic reforms have made no effort to link their fight to the continuing stalemate in peace talks.

But he sees the current wave of protests as the "the birth of a new left, very different from that of yesteryear."

And he believes protesters will come to see the link between economic problems and Israel's construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

"In the end it will come because we squander huge sums maintaining the war machine and settlements," he said.

Avnery has been campaigning longer than almost anyone in Israel for a peace deal with Palestinians, pushing since the end of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

For years it was a lonely position to take and, more than six decades on, he has yet to see his goal realized, but for Avnery it has not been time spent preaching in the wilderness.

"There were no more than a hundred of us around the world promoting the idea in 1949," he said. "Today the whole world supports it, along with the majority of Israelis."

He is an ardent supporter of the Palestinian campaign seeking membership of the United Nations for a state on the lines that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

He sees support from France and the rest of Europe as essential, even if the initiative comes up against a US veto in the UN Security Council.

And he insists that Israel's settlements, which are now home to around 500,000 Israelis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, are not irreversible, convinced that most Israelis would give them up in exchange for a "real peace."

Born in September 1923 in Beckum, Germany, Avnery immigrated to British-mandate Palestine with his family at the age of 10, fleeing Nazism.

In 1950, he founded an independent weekly magazine, Haolam Hazeh, which he edited for 40 years.

The anti-establishment journal, the only one at that time not run by a political party, had a considerable influence on the Israeli press.

In 1969, he was elected to the Israeli parliament as an independent and served there for eight years.

Throughout his career, he espoused the cause of peace with the Palestinians, and in July 1982, he caused a firestorm by meeting Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Beirut, then under siege by the Israeli army.

He is appalled by changes that have occurred in Israeli society, citing "the ultra-capitalists who rule, the power concentrated in 20 families," and the breakdown of health and education services.

And he reserves harsh criticism for the current government, accusing them of intransigence towards the Palestinians that is holding up peace talks.

Perhaps surprisingly, the veteran peace activist is not a pacifist and says that for many years he felt a genuine love for the Israel Defense Forces, the nation's military.

"That was when the IDF was a people's army that was not corrupted by occupation," he said. Today he is concerned about the growing power within the officer corps "of religious nationalists who take their orders from rabbis."

And as a youngster he belonged to the Irgun, a right-wing Zionist militia that fought both local Arabs and Palestine's British rulers prior to Israel's 1948 declaration of statehood.

He has no regrets about fighting with the group.

"I fought for the freedom of my people against the British occupiers," he said. "For the same reasons, I always thought that the Palestinians were entitled to their independence and freedom."

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