Writer, former lawmaker, and veteran peace activist Uri Avnery died Monday at the age of 94, days after suffering a stroke.
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 Haolam Hazeh (“This World”) magazine.
He 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.
A member of Israel’s founding generation, he had the ear of prime ministers, even while shaking up the establishment with his tabloid weekly, 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. He took on successive Israeli governments and once, in 1982, snuck across four battle lines in Israeli-besieged Beirut to talk to Israel’s then-nemesis, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat — the first prominent Israeli to do so publicly.
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, lands captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by the Palestinians for a state.
“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 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 radical group of several hundred activists that has staged hundreds of protests, often side by side with Palestinian activists.
Over the years, he also wrote several books, including two about the 1948 war, and collected peace prizes and awards.
He was to have celebrated his 95th birthday next month.
Leaders of left and center-left parties were first to eulogize Avnery.
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. The fact that this was almost always against the mainstream did not lead him to the margins but on the contrary, to influence.”
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.”