Uri Avnery, veteran Israeli peace activist, is a small man with a large presence. He cuts a biblical figure with his white hair and beard, soft voice and a calm demeanour that can come only from some deep inner strength.
The 83-year-old journalist, essayist and editor is here for a conference of writers, especially for a session entitled "Writing in a World Without Peace," about the duty of intellectuals to bear witness to these troubled times.
A former member of the Knesset and co-founder of Gush Shalom peace group, Avnery says he has not known a day of peace since he migrated to Palestine from Germany in 1933.
In an interview later, I ask him to rate the chances of a settlement in the Arab-Israeli dispute.
Good, he says, but only in the long run.
"We are in a curious situation, where anyone interested in a solution, including Hamas, knows what the solution is going to be — a real, viable Palestinian state in all the occupied territories, with a few changes here and there of the border. But no one knows how to get there."
While "a great majority" of both the Israelis and the Palestinians want peace, he says, "the political setup on both sides ... is not really suited to finding solutions, for different reasons — on our side, because the government really does not want a solution."
"We have an ongoing, partly hidden debate about what's really the main thing. Achieve peace or create a bigger Israel? The people in power today still believe that a greater Israel is more important.
"They got away from the idea that all of the country of Palestine should become Israel. But still, they would like to annex significant parts of the West Bank and fill it up with new Israeli settlements. That's their priority.
"As long as this is a priority, not only do these people not want peace but they think peace is a bad thing ...
"That's why they keep postponing it. That's why they do not want to have any real dialogue with the Palestinians.
"That's why they are quite happy about Hamas coming to power because Hamas officially says they would not recognize Israel and never make peace with it ... because it's against their official ideology, even theology, that Palestine is an Islamic waqf (trust), and so on and so forth."
However, Avnery says, Hamas is "quite ready to make peace, but rather in a roundabout way."
He said he recently met with a senior Hamas official in East Jerusalem to try to open "a dialogue between the Israeli peace groups and the Hamas leadership, as I did 30 years ago when I established the first contact with the PLO.
"I believe that we can make peace with Hamas. Actually, I believe that it is even better to make peace with Hamas than with Fatah, because if we make peace with Hamas, there will be no opposition to it."
Like president Richard Nixon going to China?
"Yes, like Nixon in China, like (Charles) De Gaulle in Algeria."
What does Avnery think of the policy, which Canada was the first to announce, of starving the Palestinians for having elected Hamas?
"It is a terrible policy. It is inhumane and it is stupid.
"No people in the world would react to such a crude outside intervention against a government which they have just now elected in unquestionably democratic elections.
"Any people, including my own, would react to this by embracing their government. Anyone with any modicum of political experience, political wisdom and political intuition would know this is wrong. But it is popular. It is very popular in America among politicians and among all the lobby people.
"But I don't think it will succeed ...
"If there were elections tomorrow, I am quite sure the majority for Hamas will become bigger, not smaller."
What should Canada's role be?
"People have this belief, or maybe superstition, that Canadians are better than others, that Canadians are part of the Anglo-Saxon culture but are free from the obvious faults of the U.S. and of the United Kingdom — not so powerful, not so arrogant, maybe a little bit more moral.
"Whether it is true or not, it is widely believed and I myself believe in it, and I do very much hope that Canada could be, or should be, a voice of reason.
"It's not a question of being pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian but being pro-peace and pro-reason."
Haroon Siddiqui, the Star's editorial page editor emeritus, appears Thursday and Sunday.
© 2006 The Toronto Star