Amos Oz: ‘One pen I use to tell stories, the other to tell the government to go to hell’

The campaigning Israeli writer, who’ll be at Dalkey Book Festival next weekend, says that spending his early childhood under British administration in Jerusalem gives him an affinity with Ireland

Hostile world: Amos Oz in Israel. Photograph: Rina Castelnuovo/New York Times

Hostile world: Amos Oz in Israel. Photograph: Rina Castelnuovo/New York Times

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 01:00

Amos Oz is probably Israel’s best-known living writer. The 75-year-old relishes talking about his “Irish zeal” as a child in the British Mandate of Palestine when, influenced by his father’s support for the Irgun, the Zionist terrorist organisation that attacked Arabs and Britons, he and his playmates constructed “an awesome rocket” that they intended to launch at Buckingham Palace.

“It was built of a broken refrigerator and the relics of a motorcycle,” Oz says with a laugh over the telephone line from Tel Aviv. “I wanted to send the king of England an ultimatum: ‘Either get out of our country by our Day of Atonement or it will become England’s Day of Judgment.’ ”

Oz’s participation in Dalkey Book Festival next weekend will be the Israeli writer’s second visit to Ireland. He says that, having spent the first nine years of his life under British administration in Jerusalem, he has a special affinity with Ireland.

All these decades later, Oz and I are still talking about rockets and weapons. The rockets Hamas fires from Gaza. The nuclear weapons that Israel has and the ones it accuses Iran of trying to obtain.

Oz defines himself as a Zionist social democrat and peace activist. He’s a member of Peace Now and the left-wing Meretz party. “I feel shame and remorse about the lasting Israeli occupation of the West Bank,” he says.

When Oz sent an Arabic-language edition of his childhood memoir and best-known book, A Tale of Love and Darkness, to the imprisoned Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti, he wrote in the dedication: “I hope you read it and understand us as we understand you.”

Oz rejects the demand of the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that Palestinians recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, saying, “I don’t think it’s up to the Palestinians to define the nature of the state of Israel.”

To punish the Palestinian Authority for adhering to 15 international conventions in April, the Israeli government blocked the monthly transfer of $100 million in taxes – two-thirds of the authority’s budget. Israel imposed the same punishment when Palestine obtained observer status at the UN and when it joined Unesco. Oz opposes such reprisals, saying, “I am absolutely in favour of Palestine joining the international family, as a full-scale member.”

As a novelist, Oz says, he puts himself in other people’s skin. He believes he understands how Palestinians feel, “without agreeing with every Palestinian position, or even being pro-Palestinian. I am pro-peace, not necessarily pro-Palestinian.”

Oz is nearly as hardline as Likud, Netanyahu’s party, about Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip – and which Israel and the US regard as a terrorist organisation – and the Iranian nuclear programme, both of which he views as existential threats to Israel. “Hamas still maintains that a total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories is phase one,” he says. “Phase two would be the disappearance of the state of Israel.” He withholds judgment on the new Palestinian unity government, whose formation Ireland welcomed on June 3rd. “We have to wait for a fundamental change in Hamas’s attitude towards Israel’s right to exist.”

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