Avnery, Israeli peace activist who met Arafat, dies aged 94

Jonah Mandel
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In this file photo taken on May 9, 2002, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (R) meets Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery at his office inside his partially destroyed compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah

Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery, who pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state and stoked controversy by meeting Yasser Arafat, has died aged 94, a hospital spokesman said Monday.

Seen by many as the backbone of Israel's peace movement, Avnery never lost hope an agreement could be reached with the Palestinians.

But before becoming a prominent peace activist, he was a soldier and even part of a right-wing militia.

A spokesman for Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv said Avnery died overnight.

He had been admitted to Ichilov more than a week ago after suffering from a stroke, he added.

Avnery requested that his body be cremated.

Born in September 1923 in Beckum, Germany as Helmut Ostermann, Avnery emigrated to British-mandate Palestine with his family at the age of 10, fleeing Nazism.

In 1950, he founded an independent weekly magazine, Haolam Hazeh, which he edited for 40 years.

The anti-establishment journal, the only one at that time not run by a political party, had a considerable influence on the Israeli press.

He founded a political movement in 1965 and was elected to Israel's parliament where he served eight years.

In 1979 he was voted in as part of a different movement and spent two more years as a lawmaker before resigning.

- 'Dedicated life to peace' -

Avnery had pushed since the end of the first Arab-Israeli war, which began in 1948, for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as a means to bring peace.

In July 1982, he caused a firestorm by becoming one of the first Israelis to meet Palestinian leader Arafat in Beirut, then under siege by the Israeli army.

Arab Israeli politician Ayman Odeh and former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni were among the first to pay tribute to Averny.

Odeh, head of the Joint List, a mainly Arab alliance in Israel's parliament, called him "a dear man who dedicated his life to peace".

"His voice, ideas and worldview will continue to resonate after his departure," he said in a statement.

Opposition head Livni, from the centre-left Zionist Union, called Avnery "a courageous journalist and rare, trailblazing man".

She said he maintained "his principles despite attacks and planted in the heart of Israelis ideas of peace and moderation, even when they weren't in the lexicon".

President Reuven Rivlin said that his fundamental disagreements with Avnery "were diminished in light of the ambition to build a free and strong society here".

As a teen Avnery was a member of the Irgun, the right-wing Zionist militia that fought both local Arabs and Palestine's British rulers prior to Israel's 1948 declaration of statehood.

He had no regrets about belonging to the group.

"I fought for the freedom of my people against the British occupiers," he said. "For the same reasons, I always thought that the Palestinians were entitled to their independence and freedom."

Gush Shalom, the peace movement Avnery founded in 1993, said that Avnery will be inscribed in Israel's history as "a far-seeing visionary who pointed to a way which others failed to see".

"It is the fate and future of the State of Israel to reach peace with its neighbours," Gush Shalom said. "Avnery's greatest opponents will ultimately have to follow in his footsteps."

A prolific writer, he published over 10 books including his 2014 autobiography titled "Optimistic".

While prospects for peace seemed to have dwindled in recent years under rightwing Israeli governments, Avnery remained firm in his belief the public could be swayed to support a Palestinian state.

"I remain optimistic because I believe in the ability of the (Israeli) people to change course," Avnery told AFP in a 2011 interview.