Israeli's early call for peace through talk is catching on


September 12, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Uri Avnery knows a thing or two about terrorism.

If Israel had lost its war for independence, Avnery would have been branded a terrorist.

As it was, he was called a patriot.

Until, years later, he called for peace with the PLO and then was branded a traitor.

As a child, escaping with his family from Nazi Germany, Avnery came to Palestine and at age 14 joined the Irgun.

The Irgun and the Stern Gang (or Stern Group) were right-wing extremist organizations that engaged in bombings and assassinations as well as full-scale military assaults against the British and the Arabs.

Avnery still carries three bullet wounds from those days and will lift his shirt and show them off if asked.

The bullets entered Avnery's front, not his back, by the way.

He was never one to run away from a fight.

The day I talked to him in his high-rise apartment in Tel Aviv was a hot one, and he had the windows open. From down below came the sound of children playing on the beach.

In a few weeks, Avnery would travel in utmost secrecy to Beirut and become the first Israeli to meet with Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It was 1982, and Avnery had become prominent in Israel's peace movement. He believed that the PLO should be recognized and that all territories occupied by Israel should be given back to the Palestinians.

After the meeting between Avnery and Arafat became public, some in Israel wanted to try Avnery, a former member of the Israeli parliament, for treason.

I was warned against interviewing him. I was told that he was such a left-wing extremist (an irony considering his past) that few in Israel took him seriously.

But I found him to be a thoughtful and often fascinating man. Especially when he talked about terrorism, a subject he had had some experience with.

As we spoke, he stood at the open window and looked out at the Mediterranean. On the beach, young men kicked soccer balls along the sand and tried to catch the eyes of bikini-clad girls. Old men wearing Bermuda shorts, sandals and black socks walked along the surf. Mothers called after their children. Fathers snored under beach umbrellas.

It could have been an American beach. Except for the squat gray patrol boat that bobbed in the surf, its machine guns manned by Israeli soldiers constantly scanning the horizon for terrorist raiders.

"The only way to defeat terrorism is by a Palestinian government defeating terrorism," Avnery said. "A foreign government [i.e. Israel] cannot defeat it. If you create a national government, a Palestinian government, then that government itself is threatened by terrorism."

Avnery used the example of the Republic of Ireland, which was formed by IRA terrorism, but which today condemns that group.

And he had another example about how national governments, rather than governments of occupation, could effectively deal with terrorism.

"It was David Ben-Gurion [first prime minister of Israel] who destroyed the Irgun and the Stern Gang," Avnery said, "not the British."

But to accept Avnery's reasoning meant accepting the PLO, which meant sitting down and talking with Yasser Arafat, a terrorist who had engineered the murder of scores of Israeli men, women and children.

When I pointed this out, Avnery just sighed and continued looking out the window.

"I know people say we will never talk to the PLO," he said. Then he turned toward me suddenly.

"You know, I wish we were at war with the Dutch," he said. "That way, we could sit down with the Dutch, who are such nicer people. Unfortunately, we are at war with the Palestinians. And that is who we must talk to!"

Today, more than a decade later, Israel and the PLO have talked. And recognized each other. And have taken the first steps toward peace.

It is not a wildly popular idea in Israel or with many Palestinians. There are too many deaths, too many killings, remembered on both sides.

So can the Israelis really forgive and forget? Can the Arabs?

No, they cannot.

But this new plan is not about forgiving or forgetting.

It is about hope. It is about peace. It is about trying.

And, therefore, it is worth it.

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