A Jewish Israeli Knesset member and former minister of defense, a senior Arab Israeli Knesset member and a top Palestinian politician from the occupied territories met last week in Tel Aviv. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this rare encounter took place on Aug. 22 in the lobby of Sokolov House, the headquarters of the Israeli Journalists Association. Former Defense Minister Amir Peretz of the Zionist Camp, Joint List Chair Ayman Odeh and senior Palestinian official Nabil Shaath shook hands over a simple wooden casket bearing the photo of journalist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery, who died two days earlier at the age of 94.
At the foot of the coffin lay a wreath from Yuli Edelstein, speaker of the Knesset. It’s the same institution that recently adopted the nationality law discriminating between Israeli Jews and their Arab neighbors, the same parliament that has broken Israel’s record of racist legislation and is not nearly done. Even as the government was negotiating with Hamas, an organization preaching for the State of Israel’s annihilation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mourned his passage in a statement hailing his struggle against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory that began in 1967 and his championing of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“I was moved to see that throughout the day, Palestinian television aired the condolence message sent by President Abbas,” said Odeh. “I want to see his name commemorated on a street in Ramallah,” he added, in a challenge directed at the Palestinian delegation from Ramallah. Let us start with Tel Aviv, I thought to myself. I looked around in vain for Ron Huldai, the mayor of the city that was home to Avnery and the campaigns he waged for peace. Perhaps President Reuven Rivlin, who praised Avnery’s campaign for official recognition of the pre-state Etzel underground militia, could cut the ribbon at the inauguration.
Avnery suffered a stroke as he was making his way to the Aug. 11 rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, where Arabs and Jews, lovers of peace and advocates of equality, Zionists and post-Zionists stood side by side demanding the repeal of the nationality law. When the protest ended, participants went their separate ways. Some to Herzliya, an affluent suburb north of Tel Aviv, others to the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin. The next morning they were busy apologetically deflecting attacks by the political right and its affiliated media, which gleefully pounced on the hoisting of several Palestinian flags at the rally to de-legitimize the event.
Does the peace camp have a reason to apologize or lose hope? Avnery never apologized for his historic 1982 meeting with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization most Israelis considered a despicable murderer. He was not afraid to march at the head of demonstrations featuring Palestinian flags alongside Israeli ones. He had no qualms about compiling a list of Israeli factories and companies operating in the occupied territories and calling for their boycott. Even as the Israeli peace camp was being debilitated by crippling pessimism, Avnery published a two-volume autobiography he titled “Optimistic.” Despite numerous difficulties, including three attempted assassinations, he refused to be bowed by the ill winds buffeting Israeli society.
Over his decade in power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in relegating the word “peace” to the margins of political discourse. The center-left Labor Party has distanced itself from the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accord and rebranded itself as the Zionist Camp. The left-wing Meretz is divided among those like Knesset member Moshe “Mossi” Raz, who is determined to fly the flag of peace, and Knesset faction chair Ilan Gilon, who advocates a more socially oriented line. Hadash, a successor of the Israel Communist Party, is toying with the idea of forming a Jewish-Arab leftist bloc, but worries about dividing its Arab constituency and damaging its electoral prospects.
Things are not much better outside the parliament. While aggressive right-wing organizations such as Im Tirzu enjoy political and financial backing, leftist groups are busy defending themselves and trying to survive. Their leaders are unable to formulate a unified stand on various substantive issues like a boycott of Israeli settlements, mobilization of support by international organizations and contacts with Hamas. Right-wing Jewish philanthropists and American evangelical communities are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen Israeli settlements. Jewish tycoons who favor agreement with the Palestinians and revile the exclusion of minorities in Israel pen critical opinion pieces in American newspapers.
One such article by Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, condemned the nationality law on the pages of the New York Times. Dame Vivian Duffield, daughter of the late British billionaire Charles Clore and a leading Israel donor like her father, told Haaretz that the nationality law “is apartheid,” adding, “This is South Africa!” Simultaneously, Israel was inaugurating a medical school at Ariel University in the West Bank settlement. The school was funded by American tycoon Sheldon Adelson, who pumps millions of dollars into Yisrael Hayom and Makor Rishon, the media outlets of the nationalist right.
Three days after the funeral service for Avnery, Israeli settlers wielding sticks and throwing stones attacked six activists of the tiny Israeli-Palestinian Ta’ayush organization, breaking their cameras. Four of the activists were taken to Soroka Hospital in the southern city of Beersheba suffering extensive bruising; one was unable to stand. Their only sin was trying to document the invasion of Palestinian lands by settlers from the illegal outpost of Mitzpe Yair in the southern Hebron Hills.
Like Avnery, 74-year-old writer and translator Ilana Hammerman is among the handful of the righteous striving to physically block the expulsion of Palestinians from their lands and keep the flame of peace burning. This past May, she took part in an attempt to chase away settlers harassing Palestinian shepherds in the West Bank. “If there were hundreds of people joining them instead of a handful,” she wrote, “the bureaucratic military machine, conducting its violent business with the help of edicts and bulldozers and guns, would finally start creaking and the grating noise would be heard at a distance, in Israel and farther away.”
A different kind of “noise” was heard several days ago, when three young Arab Israelis screamed in pain as they were beaten bloody on a beach by nationalist Israelis simply for being Arabs. They came to swim in the sea, the same sea over which the ashes of Israel’s top warrior for peace were scattered that day. Dozens of Israelis witnessed the lynching. Only one righteous stood up to help.
“He did not get to the end of the road, did not live to see peace come about,” wrote Avnery’s friends from Gush Shalom, the organization he founded and led. They pledged that many of those he influenced would keep his mission alive. One can but be an optimist, to quote Avnery.