Revisiting Uri Avnery

Submitted by AWL on 8 May, 2019 - 11:10 Author: Barry Finger
Uri Avnery

More debate on the right of return here.

There is a real dispute in our camp over how socialists orient to the “right of return". It derives from comrades who view that purported right through the lens of the Israeli peace movement and those who peer through the other end of the telescope, that of the BDS anti-peace movement. Those, such as myself – and perhaps Daniel Randall, though I wouldn’t presume to speak for him – have been educated and informed on this subject by the literature of Gush Shalom, for many decades the most militant wing of the Israeli anti-occupation movement.

Its spokesperson and leading personality, Uri Avnery, argued that no progress towards a two state solution would make headway, if some token face-saving concession were not offered to Palestinian and Arab leaders on this issue. It would be impossible, he felt, to bypass the feeling of injustice and betrayal of the Palestinian cause that a humiliating public renunciation of that “right” would entail. And so, Avnery concluded, progress towards a two-state solution would self-sabotage if it were perceived as a diktat to a defeated people.

He advocated instead a limited, face-saving return and the acceptance of responsibility on the part of Israel, noting that Ben-Gurion and Sharett offered to take back 100,000 Arabs in 1949, the equivalent of 500,000 in comparison to the Jewish population of today. He himself proposed an annual quota of 50,000 for ten years.This, he continued, would not disturb the demographic balance, since Israel was absorbing 50,000 Jews per year.

No right can be exercised unequivocally. The right to free speech does not secure the freedom to foment a lynch mob. And any honestly advocated “right to return” invalidates itself if exercised to the degree necessary to imperil the right to Israeli self-determination. Doubly so, since the right to return is unnecessary to the exercise of Palestinian self-determination. But– and this is crucial – such a limited return as Avnery advocated would only be adopted in conjunction with a comprehensive peace plan between Israel and the entire Arab world.

Some Palestinians might chose to return to their divided families and communities within Israel; other would be disinclined to live in a state with a different national and cultural background, after seeing the reality with their own eyes. But, Avnery argued, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians would seek participation in the project of Palestinian state building where they would finally enjoy the freedom of undisputed and untrammeled sovereignty. In the end, reality would trump ideology; the prospects of advancing to a promising future would outweigh the stagnant need to nurture injustices, real and in many respects self-inflicted.

The problem resides in this. BDS is not the Palestinian equivalent of Gush Shalom and their supporters do not seek national reconciliation. They seek Israel’s national obliteration. Avnery’s perspective may have seemed reasonable yesterday, and may again seem reasonable in some future tomorrow. But for now, the “right of return” is a self-proclaimed Trojan horse, advocated as a ruse to destroy the two-state solution and to permanently deprive Israeli Jews of any right to self-determination. That is precisely why BDS did not see Avnery as their partner.

Tactically flexible as Avnery was, he was ultimately unwilling to capitulate to the Arab chauvinist perspective that Israel itself is occupied Arab territory. But that’s also why it's worth revisiting Avnery’s perspective. BDS is an enormous counterweight to any progress towards a democratic future for both peoples. Any prospective Palestinian partner would face an enormous revanchist backlash from their BDS right flank the moment talks might revive. And this right wing movement is growing in strength and colonizing the far- and not so – far left.

The Israeli peace movement needs to extend any would-be Palestinian peace partner cover to diffuse the BDS resistance, peel away soft supporters from that end of the political spectrum and implicate the most implacable BDS advocates as the war mongers they most certainly are. We must tell the full truth about BDS. But we must also be sensitive to the Palestinian sense of grievance and those of their supporters motivated not so much by root and branch ideological hatred for Israel, as for their justifiable impatience with the ongoing injustice of an occupation without end.

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