Shlomo Avineri, Israeli Scholar Skeptical About Peace, Dies at 90

Shlomo Avineri, an Israeli political scientist, historian and former government official whose pessimism about resolving the conflict with Palestinians did not stop him from advocating measures to ease it, died on Nov. 30 in Jerusalem. He was 90.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by Hebrew University, also in Jerusalem, where he taught, and by his daughter and only immediate survivor, Maayan Avineri-Rebhun.

Mr. Avineri was what Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, called a public intellectual: a scholar of Marx, Hegel and Zionism who brought his academic eminence to bear in a column he wrote for the newspaper Haaretz; who was often quoted by journalists; and who played a role in peace negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan when Mr. Avineri was director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, a position he held from 1975 to 1977.

He was regarded as “quite dovish,” Mr. Rabinovich said in a phone interview. Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, noted that Mr. Avineri was “one of the first prominent Israelis to call for negotiations with the P.L.O.” However, he added, Mr. Avineri would later become “a powerful critic of the Palestinian national movement” under the impact of intifada and suicide bombings.

Mr. Avineri immigrated with his parents from Poland in the 1930s, and Zionism was in his bones. “He was someone who had deep empathy for the other side, but not at the expense of defending Israel,” Mr. Halevi said.

In his writings in Haaretz and elsewhere, Mr. Avineri was consistently skeptical about Israel’s prospects for achieving peace with its enemies. He was convinced of Palestinian and Arab hatred for Israel and Zionism, whose 19th-century roots he chronicled in 1981 in an admired book, “The Making of Modern Zionism.”

The Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7 only buttressed this view. Immediately afterward, speaking to The New York Times, he noted what he said was Hamas’s view that in Israel “every civilian is a soldier.”

“This was not rhetoric,” he said, “but identifying the vulnerability of the Israeli communities inside Israel.”

This was consistent with views that he had long expressed and that led some critics to question the position of some Israeli liberals. In 2015, Mr. Avineri wrote in Haaretz that “there is no choice but to admit there is no chance for any mutually accepted agreement in the foreseeable future.”

This “pessimistic prognosis,” he added, “called for “alternatives not in order to ‘solve’ the conflict, but to mitigate its severity and perhaps move both sides eventually to an agreed solution.”

The reasons for pessimism were obvious to him. The Palestinians, he wrote, viewed Israel not as a nation but as “an illegitimate entity, sooner or later doomed to disappear.”

But, in the same Haaretz column, Mr. Avineri called for palliative measures that he presented as good-will gestures, like ceasing construction in the settlements in occupied territories and promising financial aid to settlers who agreed to move back to Israel.

“He thought that the realpolitik approach was better,” said Avner de-Shalit, a former student of Mar. Avineri’s and later a colleague in Hebrew University’s political science department. “He thought you had to have your eyes open all the time.”

In other columns, Mr. Avineri called for “concrete steps that will achieve less than peace”; hailed the “historical roots” of Israel’s democracy while doubting Arab states’ capacity to achieve democracy themselves; and expressed reservations about economic cooperation between Israel and Palestinian territories.

This tension, between a desire for peace and a skepticism that proposals to further it would lead to anything, permeated his journalism. It is what led the historian Tony Judt to write in The New York Review of Books that Mr. Avineri and other Israeli liberals “have largely lost their way” and to chide him for forgetting that “every context has a context,” especially the mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948.

Mr. Avineri was widely admired for his original scholarship on difficult 19th-century thinkers. His book “The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx” (1968) “breaks new ground,” George Lichtheim wrote in The New York Review of Books, adding that Mr. Avineri was “right to emphasize that political democracy remained a problem for Marx and his followers.”

Another book, “Hegel’s Political Philosophy: Problems and Perspectives,” was “highly, but never oppressively, learned,” Anthony Quinton wrote in that same publication in 1975, comparing Mr. Avineri to P.G. Wodehouse. “Avineri is the Jeeves of the Absolute Idea,” he wrote. “To Hegelian equivalents of such Woosterisms as ‘dash it all, a conk on the noggin is a bit of a facer,’ he responds with something like ‘I agree, Sir, that a sharp blow on the head is a cause for concern.’”

“The Making of Modern Zionism” was praised by the political philosophy scholar Werner J. Dannhauser in The New York Times Book Review for its “indubitably great accomplishments.” He lauded Mr. Avineri for exposing what he called leftist “slander” over Zionism’s supposed “obliviousness to the very existence of Arabs.”

Before writing these books, when he was a young lecturer, Mr. Avineri had dazzled students at Hebrew University with his erudition.

“In the 1960s, there was a young, brilliant, charismatic lecturer filling the political science department’s lecture halls at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus,” Uri Benziman wrote in Haaretz in 2015, in an article otherwise critical of Mr. Avineri for failing to provide context for some of his conclusions. “Shlomo Avineri mesmerized the students with the breadth of his knowledge and the sharpness of his analysis in lectures on political thought.”

Shlomo Avineri was born on Aug. 20, 1933, in Bielsko-Biala, Poland, the son of Michael and Ester-Erna (Gruner) Wiener. His father was an accountant, his mother a professional secretary. He emigrated to Palestine with his parents in 1939. He received his doctorate from Hebrew University, where he later became head of the political science department and dean of the school of social science.

His wife, Devora, died in 2022.

Mr. Avineri had a distinguished academic career behind him when he entered Israel’s foreign ministry in 1975 as director general in the government of Yitzhak Rabin. His humanism shaped his approach to negotiations over the future of the Palestinians, evident in a 1970 article in Commentary. “What I have in mind specifically,” he wrote, “is a discussion with the Palestinians now under Israeli rule concerning the possibility of establishing a Palestinian Arab state on the West Bank and in Gaza.”

That was beyond what many Israelis were willing to accept, at least in public. And when the conservative Likud party came into power, Mr. Avineri was out.

If his views hardened over the years, he remained “like a guru for many people on the moderate left in Israel,” Mr. de-Shalit said, adding, “He used to say, ‘I’m one of the few Israelis who don’t know what the future of this area will be.’’’

Steven Erlanger and Myra Noveck contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed research.