Avnery on Sharon, the wall and Middle East peace

January 11, 2014 at 3:08 pm (history, Human rights, israel, Middle East, palestine, posted by JD, zionism)

I have been unable to ascertain the date of this interview (first published in The Progressive), but clearly it took place sometime between 2001 and 2006.

Ariel Sharon, by Jim Wallace (Smithsonian Institution).jpg

Sharon: aimed to prevent a Palestinian state

Uri Avnery Interview
By Jon Elmer
Uri Avnery is a founding member of Gush Shalom (Israeli Peace Bloc). As a teenager, Avnery was an independence fighter in the Irgun, the armed Jewish resistance, and later a soldier in the Israeli army. He also served three times as a member of the Knesset. Avnery was the first Israeli to establish contact with the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership in 1974. During the war on Lebanon in 1982, he crossed enemy lines to meet with Yasser Arafat. He has been a journalist since 1947, including forty years as editor-in-chief of the newsmagazine Ha’olam Haze. He is the author of numerous books on the conflict, including My Friend, the Enemy and Two People, Two States. I spoke with him twice, the first time on September 14 of last year and the second time on February 15 of this year.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about your years in the Irgun?

Uri Avnery: I joined the Irgun when I was just fifteen years old, and I left when I was nineteen years old. I joined because I wanted to fight for our freedom and a state of our own against the British colonial administration of Palestine. I left it because I did not approve of the methods and the aims of the Irgun.I have always been conscious of the importance and the strength of nationalism, and this has led me straight to the acknowledgment of the nationalism of the Palestinian people. I believe there is no way around this: We have to have a solution based on two national states, which will hopefully live and grow together and establish a relationship between them in something like a European Union.

Q: Can you discuss your 1945 essay, “Terrorism: The infantile disease of the Hebrew revolution”? And how does it relate to current Palestinian terrorism?

Avnery: When we in the Irgun put bombs in the Arab markets of Jaffa and Jerusalem and Haifa and killed scores of people–men, women, and children–in retaliation for similar acts by the Arabs, I didn’t back this. But it left me with a lasting understanding of what gets people to join such organizations, and I understand the Palestinians who join these organizations.I am against violence on both sides. But I understand people who believe that without violence they will not achieve anything at all. It is our responsibility as the stronger party, as the occupying power, to convince the Palestinians that they can achieve their basic national aims, their just national aspirations, without violence. Unfortunately, the behavior of the Sharon administration, and before this of the Barak administration, has shown the Palestinians the opposite: namely, that they will achieve nothing without violence.

Q: According to the United States and Israel, it is the Palestinians–more specifically, Arafat–who must take the initiative in ending the “cycle of violence.” Edward Said once said: “Since when does a militarily occupied people have responsibility for a peace movement?” Is it the responsibility of the Palestinians to end the violence?

Avnery: Violence is part of the resistance to occupation. The basic fact is not the violence; the basic fact is the occupation. Violence is a symptom; the occupation is the disease–a mortal disease for everybody concerned, the occupied and the occupiers. Therefore, the first responsibility is to put an end to the occupation. And in order to put an end to the occupation, you must make peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people. This is the real aim, this is the real task.

Q: Can you describe the impact of the wall on the peace process?

Avnery: One of the main aims of Sharon is to prevent a Palestinian state–a real, viable, sovereign, free Palestinian state. It has been the major task of his life for the last forty years. What Sharon wants to do is “shorten the lines,” in military slang. He wants to give up some positions which are untenable, or which cost too much to keep, and to withdraw to where he wants Israel to be.The route of the wall is not a straight line. It is a kind of checkerboard leaving the Palestinians 45 percent of the West Bank. It is six, eight, maybe twelve, Palestinian enclaves, big and small, each of them surrounded by Israeli territory. Israel will keep all the highways and all the settlements–except a few isolated ones. Israel will cut through the West Bank, east and west, north and south, in three or four ribbons or strips. One has to see the map to believe it.

The wall is being built for this purpose. The route looks completely surreal. It snakes through the landscape around and around and around, cutting off several Palestinian towns and villages, surrounding them completely, leaving one little gate for them to come and go.

This is all part of the picture in the mind of Sharon. His so-called two-state solution will be, let’s say, twelve Palestinian enclaves, which will be called a Palestinian state. It will be connected by, perhaps, a series of bridges, tunnels, and highways, which can be cut off at any moment at the whim of the Israeli government or Israeli army.

All the other territory–55 percent–will be annexed to Israel. To an American reader, these numbers may be without meaning. In 1949, the country of Palestine was partitioned after the war in such a way that the State of Israel-proper consisted of 78 percent of this country of Palestine. What was left to the Arabs was 22 percent, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

When Sharon wants to annex 55 percent of this, it means that what will be left to the Palestinians will be about 10 percent of the small country which used to be called Palestine. This 10 percent will be cut up into five, ten, maybe, twelve enclaves and this will be called the state of Palestine. This is a joke, this is a farce. It is a continuation of the war by other means.

You will not find one single Palestinian leader who would agree to this. This is not a plan for peace, it is a plan for war. It guarantees that the war between us and the Palestinians will go on forever. If President Bush and the government of the United States give Ariel Sharon the OK for this plan, it means that President Bush is opting for war.

Palestinians want a state of their own. They want to live in freedom. They want to get rid of the terrible misery in which they are living. They are ready after fifty years to accept a state of their own in 22 percent of what used to be the country of Palestine. I think it is the height of stupidity on our part if we don’t grasp this opportunity.

Q: Sharon has said that he will evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip. Can you describe how this might play out?

Avnery: Contrary to the impression that has been created in Israel and all over the world–that Sharon is zigzagging, that he doesn’t know what to do, that he has no plan–he does have a very clear plan.

What he wants to do in the Gaza Strip is to evacuate most of the settlements. The Gaza Strip is not really a part of the settlement scheme of Ariel Sharon. He does not need these settlements. They are quite superfluous. They cost a lot of money. There are altogether about 7,000 settlers in all of the Gaza Strip in the middle of a million and a quarter Palestinians.

The army is investing huge resources to defend these people. There is a whole military division employed just for the Gaza Strip. To give them up is really a great benefit to the state, because these resources will now be employed in order to keep the settlements in the West Bank.

To turn the settlements over to the Palestinians would be, politically, a very difficult decision to make. It will mean that Sharon will see on his television screen the next day the Palestinians taking over Israeli settlements. In order to avoid this in the Sinai, Sharon destroyed the whole town of Yameed, which was the pride of Israel. I saw it after. It was surrealistic. The whole town was lying on the ground, roof next to roof next to roof. Sharon did this because he could not stand the idea that the Egyptians would take hold of this beautiful settlement.

It is a very complicated thing, complicated politically, militarily, economically. You can declare we should leave, but between this declaration and its implementation there is a huge gap.

Q: Perhaps you can describe some of the motivations Israelis have for living in a fortified Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.

Avnery: There are Israeli institutions whose raison d’etre is to create settlements. There is the Jewish Agency, which gets a lot of money from the United States, from American Jews, whose sole job it is to create settlements. It enlists people all over the world–especially in Russia, and in the United States, by the way–to come and settle in the Occupied Territories as a kind of religious statement, a kind of nationalist statement: “This is a country given to us by God.” A lot of Israelis who do not believe in God believe that God has given us this country.

Individually, it is a beautiful thing to be there. Because, if you are a Jewish Israeli, you go to Gaza, you get the villa of your life, the villa which you did not dream of ever getting in Israel, a beautiful two-story villa with green meadows and so on, practically for nothing. Then you put up hothouses of tomatoes or flowers; you take the very Arabs from whom you grabbed this land and employ them as laborers in your hothouses. Israeli law does not apply in Gaza: There is no minimum wage, no annual vacation, no compensation for dismissal–so you get the work very, very cheap. It is a wonderful setup economically.

Q: Do you see any signs of hope?

Avnery: There are lots of grounds for hope in Israeli society. We are seeing Israelis getting fed up with war, looking for solutions. The youngest soldiers are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. Some are volunteering for army combat units but are refusing to serve in the Occupied Territories. We have the elite of the Israeli army, the air force pilots, some of them refusing orders which they consider illegal. We have a movement of people who support the so-called Geneva Accords, a draft peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. We have lots of people come out to Gush Shalom demonstrations against this terrible wall. There are lots of signs that average Israelis want peace. But after such a long war–this conflict has been going on now for 120 years–you have a fifth generation being born into it on both sides. Such a conflict creates hatred, fears, stereotypes, and demonizations of the other. It would be an illusion to believe you can put an end to this overnight. You have to fight for the soul of your people, you have to fight for the souls of millions of people on both sides, to overcome the legacy of this struggle and create a readiness for peace.

You must get Israelis to understand the feelings and the hopes and the traumas of the Palestinians. You have to get the Palestinians to understand why Israel is behaving the way it does: What is the legacy of the Holocaust, what are the fears of average Jewish people? It is a big job, and we are committed to this job, and we will win in the end. I am quite sure, because there is no other alternative. What is the alternative to peace? A catastrophe for both peoples.

Q: What about the Palestinian right of return?

Avnery: The Palestinian right of return has many different aspects. There is the moral aspect, the political aspect, and the practical aspect. I believe that Israel must concede to the Palestinian right of return in principle. Israel must, first of all, assume its responsibility for what happened in 1948, as far as we are to blame–and we are to blame for a great part of it, if not for all–and we must recognize in principle the right of refugees to return.

In practice, we have to find a complex solution to a very complex problem. It is manifestly idiotic to believe that Israel, with five million Jewish citizens and one million Arab citizens, will concede to the return of four million refugees. It will not happen. We can wish it, we can think it’s just, that it’s moral–it will not happen. No country commits suicide.

Now the question is: How do we solve the problem by allowing a number of refugees to return to Israel, allowing a number of refugees to return to the Palestinian state, and allowing a number of refugees to settle, with general compensation, where they want to settle? It is not an abstract problem. It involves four million human beings, and more than fifty years of various sorts of misery. But it is not an insolvable problem. It involves some good will, and a readiness to give up historic myths on both sides.

Q: So what’s the solution?

Avnery: The solution is perfectly clear. All parts of the conflict have been amply debated and discussed. Many plans have been put on the table–hundreds. And everybody knows by now exactly the parameters of a peace solution. We at Gush Shalom have published a draft text of a peace agreement, and I am fairly certain that when peace comes about, it will be more or less on these lines.

The solution is this: There will be a state of Palestine in all of the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Green Line, the border that existed before 1967, will come into being again. Jerusalem will be the shared capital–East Jerusalem will be the capital of Palestine, West Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel. All settlements must be evacuated. The security must be arranged for both people, and there must be a moral solution and a practical solution.

On these lines, there will be peace. And if you ask me, they could make peace in one week. The trouble is that both people find it very difficult to come to this point. And when I say both people, I don’t want to establish a symmetrical situation. There is no symmetry here; there are occupiers, and the occupied. And as the occupier, we have the responsibility to lead this process. This is what I, as an Israeli patriot, tell my own people.

— Jon Elmer is a freelance photojournalist who reported from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  He is the creator and editor of the online journal FromOccupiedPalestine.org.


  1. Avnery on Sharon, the wall and Middle East peace | OzHouse said,

    […] Jan 11 2014 by admin […]

  2. Babs said,

    Excellent interview. I’m glad he pointed out the wall is not there just to stop suicide bombers but rather a land grab to make it harder for the Palestinians (& Israelis) to negotiate for the West Bank. The West Bank has always been far more important to Israel than the Gaza Strip in no small part due to its Biblical roots for the Jewish people (Judea and Sumaria). The Palestinians do need to stop teaching their children to hate Israelis with a passion though though I guess that would be easier to do in a viable Palestinian State.

    • jimmy glesga said,

      I doubt it would be easier as Islamists want to wipe out Israel Babs. It is not a complicated scenario.

  3. Babs said,

    By George Friedman
    Editor’s Note: The following analysis originally ran in August 2005. We repost it today in light of the recent death of Ariel Sharon.
    Israel has begun its withdrawal from Gaza. As with all other territorial withdrawals by Israel, such as that from Sinai or from Lebanon, the decision is controversial within Israel. It represents the second withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 war, and the second from land that houses significant numbers of anti-Israeli fighters. Since these fighters will not be placated by the Israeli withdrawal — given that there is no obvious agreement of land for an enforceable peace — the decision by the Israelis to withdraw from Gaza would appear odd.
    In order to understand what is driving Israeli policy, it is necessary to consider Israeli geopolitical reality in some detail.
    Israel’s founders, taken together, had four motives for founding the state.
    1. To protect the Jews from a hostile world by creating a Jewish homeland.

    2. To create a socialist (not communist) Jewish state.

    3. To resurrect the Jewish nation in order to re-assert Jewish identity in history.

    4. To create a nation based on Jewish religiosity and law rather than Jewish nationality alone.
    The idea of safety, socialism, identity and religiosity overlapped to some extent and were mutually exclusive in other ways. But each of these tendencies became a fault line in Israeli life. Did Israel exist simply so that Jews would be safe — was Israel simply another nation among many? Was Israel to be a socialist nation, as the Labor Party once envisioned? Was it to be a vehicle for resurrecting Jewish identity, as the Revisionists wanted? Was it to be a land governed by the Rabbinate? It could not be all of these things. Thus, these were ultimately contradictory visions tied together by a single certainty: None of these visions were possible without a Jewish state. All arguments in Israel devolve to these principles, but all share a common reality — the need for the physical protection of Israel.
    In order for there to be a Jewish state, it must be governed by Jews. If it is also to be a democratic state, as was envisioned by all but a few of the fourth strand of logic (religiosity), then it must be a state that is demographically Jewish.
    This poses the first geopolitical dilemma for Israel: Whatever the historical, moral or religious arguments, the fact was that at the beginning of the 20th century, the land identified as the Jewish homeland — Palestine — was inhabited overwhelmingly by Arabs. A Jewish and democratic state could be achieved only by a demographic transformation. Either more Jews would have to come to Palestine, or Arabs would have to leave, or a combination of the two would have to occur. The Holocaust caused Jews who otherwise would have stayed in Europe to come to Palestine. The subsequent creation of the state of Israel caused Arabs to leave, and Jews living in Arab countries to come to Israel.
    However, this demographic shift was incomplete, leaving Israel with two strategic problems. First, a large number of Arabs, albeit a minority, continued to live in Israel. Second, the Arab states surrounding Israel — which perceived the state as an alien entity thrust into their midst — viewed themselves as being in a state of war with Israel. Ultimately, Israel’s problem was that dealing with the external threat inevitably compounded the internal threat.
    Israel’s Strategic Disadvantage
    Israel was at a tremendous strategic disadvantage. First, it was vastly outnumbered in the simplest sense: There were many more Arabs who regarded themselves as being in a state of war with Israel than there were Jews in Israel. Second, Israel had extremely long borders that were difficult to protect. Third, the Israelis lacked strategic depth. If all of their neighbors — Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — were joined by the forces of more distant Arab and Islamic states, Israel would find it difficult to resist. And if all of these forces attacked simultaneously in a coordinated strike, Israel would find it impossible to resist.
    Even if the Arabs did not carry out a brilliant stroke, cutting Israel in half on a Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line (a distance of perhaps 20 miles), Israel would still lose an extended war with the Arabs. If the Arabs could force a war of attrition on Israel, in which they could impose an attrition rate of perhaps 1 percent per day of forces on the forward edge of the battle area, Israel would not be able to hold for more than a few months at best. In the 20th century, an attrition rate of that level, in a battle space the size of Israel, would be modest. Israel’s effective forces rarely numbered more than 250,000 men — the other 250,000 were older reserves with inferior equipment. Extended attritional warfare was not an option for Israel.
    Thus, in order for Israel to survive, three conditions were necessary:
    1. The Arabs must never unite into a single, effective force.

    2. Israel must choose the time, place and sequence of any war.

    3. Israel must never face both a war and an internal uprising of Arabs simultaneously.
    Israel’s strategy was to use diplomacy to prevent the three main adversaries — Egypt, Jordan and Syria — from simultaneously choosing to launch a war. From its founding, Israel always maintained a policy of splitting the front-line states. This was not particularly difficult, given the deep animosities among the Arabs. For example, Israel always maintained a special relationship with Jordan, which had unsatisfactory relations with its own neighbors. Early on, Israel worked to serve as the guarantor of the Jordanian regime’s survival. Later, after the Camp David Accords split Egypt off from the Arab coalition, Israel had neutralized two out of three of its potential adversaries. The dynamics of Arab geopolitics and the skill of Israeli diplomacy achieved an outcome that is rarely appreciated. From its founding, Israel managed to prevent simultaneous warfare with its neighbors except at a time and place of its own choosing. It had to maintain a military force capable of taking the initiative in order to have a diplomatic strategy.
    But throughout most of its history, Israel had a fundamental challenge in achieving this pre-eminence.
    Israel’s Geopolitical Problem

    The state’s military pre-eminence had to be measured against the possibility of diplomatic failure. Israel had to assume that all front-line states would become hostile to it, and that it would have to launch a pre-emptive strike against them all. If this were the case, Israel had this dilemma: Its national industrial base was insufficient to provide it with the technological wherewithal to maintain its military superiority. It was not simply a question of money — all the money in the world could not change the demographics — but also that Israel lacked the manpower to produce all of the weapons it needed to have and also to field an army. Therefore, Israel could survive only if it had a patron that possessed such an industrial base. Israel had to make itself useful to another country.
    Israel’s first patron was the Soviet Union, through its European satellites. Its second patron was France, which saw Israel as an ally during a time when Paris was trying to hold onto its interests in an increasingly hostile Arab world. Its third patron — but not until 1967 — was the United States, which saw Israel as a counterweight to pro-Soviet Egypt and Syria, as well as a useful base of operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
    In 1967, Israel — fearing a coordinated strike by the Arabs and also seeking to rationalize its defensive lines and create strategic depth — launched an air and land attack against its neighbors. Rather than risk a coordinated attack, Israel launched a sequential attack — first against Egypt, then Jordan, then Syria.
    The success of the 1967 war gave rise to Israel’s current geopolitical crisis. Following the war, Israel had to balance three interests:
    1. It now occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which contained large, hostile populations of Arabs. A full, peripheral war combined with an uprising in these regions would cut Israeli lines of supply and communication and risk Israel’s defeat.
    2. Israel was now dependent on the United States for its industrial base. But American interests and Israeli interests were not identical. The United States had interests in the Arab world, and had no interest in Israel crushing Palestinian opposition or expelling Palestinians from Israel. Retaining the industrial base and ruthlessly dealing with the Palestinians became incompatible needs.

    3. Israel had to continue manipulating the balance of power among Arab states in order to prevent a full peripheral war. That, in turn, meant that it was further constrained in dealing with the Palestinian question by force.
    Israeli geopolitics created the worst condition of all: Given the second and third considerations, Israel could not crush the Palestinians, but given its need for strategic depth and coherent borders, it could not abandon the occupied territories. It therefore had to continually constrain the Palestinians without any possibility of final victory. It had to be ruthless, which would enflame the Palestinians, but it could never be ruthless enough to effectively suppress them.
    The Impermanence of Diplomacy

    Israel has managed to maintain the diplomatic game it began in 1948 — the Arabs remain deeply split. It has managed to retain its relationship with the United States, even with the end of the Cold War. Given the decline of the conventional threat, Israel’s dependency on the United States has actually dwindled. For the moment, the situation is contained.
    However — and this is the key problem for Israel — the diplomatic solution is inherently impermanent. It requires constant manipulation, and the possibility of failure is built in. For example, an Islamist rising in Egypt could rapidly generate shifts that Israel could not contain. Moreover, political changes in the United States could end American patronage, without the certainty of another patron emerging. These things are not likely to occur, but they are not inconceivable. Given enough time, anything is possible.
    Israel’s advantage is diplomatic and cultural. Its ability to split the Arabs, a diplomatic force, is coupled with its technological superiority, a cultural force. But both of these can change. The Arabs might unite, and they might accelerate their technological and military sophistication. Israel’s superiority can change, but its inferiority is fixed: Geography and demographics put it in an unchangeably vulnerable position relative to the Arabs.
    The potential threats to Israel are:
    1. A united and effective anti-Israeli coalition among the Arabs.
    2. The loss of its technological superiority and, therefore, the loss of military initiative.

    3. The need to fight a full peripheral war while dealing with an intifada within its borders.

    4. The loss of the United States as patron and the failure to find an alternative.
    5. A sudden, unexpected nuclear strike on its populated heartland.
    Therefore, it follows that Israel has three options.
    The first is to hope for the best. This has been Israel’s position since 1967. The second is to move from conventional deterrence to nuclear deterrence. Israel already possesses this capability, but the value of nuclear weapons is in their deterrent capability, not in their employment. You can’t deal with an intifada or with close-in conventional war with nuclear weapons — not given the short distances involved in Israel. The third option is to reduce the possibility of disaster as far as possible by increasing the tensions in the Arab world, reducing the incentive for cultural change among the Arabs, eliminating the threat of intifada in time of war, and reducing the probability that the United States will find it in its interests to break with Israel.
    Hence, the withdrawal from Gaza. As a base for terrorism, Gaza poses a security threat to Israel. But the true threat from Gaza, and even more the West Bank, lies in the fact that they create a dynamic that decreases Israel’s diplomatic effectiveness, risks creating Arab unity, increases the impetus for military modernization and places stress on Israel’s relationship with the United States. The terrorist threat is painful. The alternative risks long-term catastrophe.
    Some of the original reasons for Israel’s founding, such as the desire for a socialist state, are now irrelevant to Israeli politics. And revisionism, like socialism, is a movement of the past. Modern Israel is divided into three camps:
    1. Those who believe that the survival of Israel depends on disengaging from a process that enrages without crushing the Palestinians, even if it opens the door to terrorism.

    2. Those who regard the threat of terrorism as real and immediate, and regard the longer-term strategic threats as theoretical and abstract.

    3. Those who have a religious commitment to holding all territories.
    The second and third factions are in alliance but, at the moment, it is the first faction that appears to be the majority. It is not surprising that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is leading this faction. As a military man, Sharon has a clear understanding of Israel’s vulnerabilities. It is clearly his judgment that the long-term threat to Israel comes from the collapse of its strategic position, rather than from terrorism. He has clearly decided to accept the reality of terrorist attacks, within limits, in order to pursue a broader strategic initiative.
    Israel has managed to balance the occupation of a hostile population with splitting Arab nation states since 1967. Sharon’s judgment is that, given the current dynamics of the Muslim world, pursuing the same strategy for another generation would be both too costly and too risky. The position of his critics is that the immediate risks of disengagement increase the immediate danger to Israel without solving the long-term problem. If Sharon is right, then there is room for maneuver. But if his critics, including Benjamin Netanyahu, are right, Israel is locked down to an insoluble problem.That is the real debate.

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