Palestinian leader mourns passing of peace activist Uri Avnery

Palestinian leader mourns passing of peace activist Uri Avnery

‘He will remain an icon of real and permanent peace,’ PA President Mahmoud Abbas tells close friend of former MK, who was first prominent Israeli to meet Arafat publicly

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) and Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery at the PA headquarters in Ramallah on January 5, 2017. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) and Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery at the PA headquarters in Ramallah on January 5, 2017. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas praised Israeli writer, peace activist and former lawmaker Uri Avnery, who died overnight at the age of 94.

Avnery died between Sunday night and Monday morning, after suffering a stroke more than a week ago, according to a spokesman at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv.

“With great sadness, we received the news of the death of the excellent journalist and politician Uri Avnery,” Abbas said in a letter addressed to Avnery’s family and friends and peace activists in Israel Monday.

“We knew him throughout his life as a distinguished journalist who defended the truth and fought for the achievement of coexistence and peace.”

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, left, meets with Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery at his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah, April 10, 2004. (AP Photo/Muhammed Nasser/File)

Avnery was the first prominent Israeli to meet publicly with former PLO chairman Yasser Arafat in 1982 in Beirut, at the height of the first Lebanon War, though the chairman was considered a terrorist by many Israelis.

Earlier this year, Avnery wrote that he first met Abbas during a meeting with Arafat in Tunis later that year, and the two formed a bond over a shared connection to Safed, which Abbas had fled as a child.

“I met with Abu Mazen every time I visited Arafat in Tunis. When I heard that he was originally from Safed, the mixed Arab-Jewish town in northern Palestine, this was an additional bond. Safed was the second home of my wife, Rachel, who, as a child, went there every summer. Her father, a children’s physician, practiced there in the summers, too. Abu Mazen could not remember whether he was ever treated by him as a child, before his family had to flee in 1948,” he wrote, using Abbas’s nom de guerre.

Abbas and Avnery frequently met over the past many decades, but more recently they saw each other less regularly because of the latter’s deteriorating health, according to Elias Zananiri, a 40-year friend of the peace activist.

Abbas and Avnery have long “had a close relationship of mutual-interest and respect,” said Zananiri. “Their relationship was based on both of their desires to end the conflict and achieve peace.”

According to Wafa, Abbas also called Avnery’s friends and offered them his condolences.

“He will remain an icon of real and permanent peace,” the PA president said of the late peace activist in a phone call with Anat Saragusti, a a close friend of Avnery, according to the official PA news site Wafa.

Avnery, for decades one of the Israeli left wing’s most prominent political voices, had served as a member of the Knesset and as editor of the weekly Haolam Hazeh (“This World”) magazine.

Avnery was born in 1923 into a well-to-do bankers’ family in Germany that emigrated to Israel in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. He grew up poor in Tel Aviv and was forced to work instead of going to school.

At age 15, Avnery joined the pre-state paramilitary group Irgun, where he served for four years. He later fought in the 1948 Independence War as a member of the Givati Brigade, and was seriously wounded in one of the battles.

Uri Avnery (left) addresses the first ever public meeting organized by a Jewish group to hear the views of Palestinians, at the Country hall, Westminster, London, on Feburary 27, 1983. (AP Photo/File)

A member of Israel’s founding generation, he had the ear of prime ministers, even while shaking up the establishment with his weekly magazine, a mix of hard-hitting exposes, gossip, and photos of nude women.

In 1965, he formed a political party, Meri, and served as its representative in the Knesset for 10 years.

Avnery was perhaps the first prominent Israeli to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, saying it was the only way to secure peace for a democratic Israel with a Jewish majority.

His unwavering convictions won him respect from political rivals such as Geula Cohen, a long-time advocate of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

“He is the political father of the (idea of) the Palestinian state,” Cohen said of Avnery in 2013. “He is the first one who raised it politically. I don’t accept his ideas, but I admire his strength to continue to fight for his ideas.

Avnery came by his beliefs early on, saying that, even as a young man in pre-state Palestine, during the period of the British Mandate, he was convinced that “the Arabs will never be satisfied with less than [what] we are satisfied with, namely freedom and independence.”

Avnery was one of the few constants in Israel’s “peace camp,” increasingly fractured and politically sidelined since the 1990s when the Labor Party under then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin led talks with the Palestinians on interim peace deals.

In 1993, he formed Gush Shalom or “Peace Bloc,” a group of several hundred activists that has staged hundreds of protests, often side by side with Palestinian activists.

Left-wing activist Uri Avnery at a protest in East Jerusalem on August 29, 2009. (Matanya Tausig/ Flash90/File)

Over the years, he also wrote several books, including two about the War of Independence, and collected peace prizes and awards.

He was to have celebrated his 95th birthday next month.

Many Israeli leaders issued statements following Avnery’s death.

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni lamented Avnery’s death. “He was a brave journalist and a rare and revolutionary man,” she said. “He stood for his positions despite the attacks (he faced) and planted within the people of Israel the notions of peace and moderation, when they were not yet in the lexicon, with a sharp and clear-eyed view that he maintained till the day he died. Israel will miss him.”

Meretz party chief Tamar Zandberg said Avnery “molded Israeli history as few have done, precisely because conscience and truth were his compass.”

MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint (Arab) List party, called Avnery “a dear man who dedicated his life to peace, to a better future for both peoples and to the establishment of a Palestinian state. His voice, vision and outlook will continue to reverberate after his passing.”

On the right, former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar said Avnery “was as far from myself and my positions as east is from west. His words and actions often angered me. But in nascent Israel he was a model of fearless opposition, in times when it was difficult to oppose the Mapai (precursor to Labor) regime, which hounded him. And there is no democracy without opposition.”

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett told Army Radio that Avnery “contributed to the establishment of the state… I very much opposed his positions, but we are a democratic country.”

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