I am not one to hang photographs of myself and celebrities in my office or at home. If I were, I have two photographs that I cannot imagine hanging at this time. One is with Presidential Candidate George W. Bush and Laura Bush taken in the months preceding the 2000 election. I had joined many rabbinic colleagues in October, 2000 in a meeting with the candidate after which we had the “honor” of standing with the soon-to-be-elected Bush and his wife Laura for a photograph.
The other photograph, which inspires this blog, was taken in 1998 of myself in conversation with the then leader of the West Bank’s Fatah organization, Marwan Barghouti, in his offices in Ramallah. Mr. Barghouti graciously received about 20 rabbis from Israel, the United States and Canada in a delegation of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Reform Zionist organization. The then Executive Director of ARZA, and now one of my dearest friends, Rabbi Ammi Hirsch, who led our group had asked me to chair that meeting and introduce our group to Barghouti. At the time, Mr. Barghouti was a relative unknown. He was young (then 39) and small in physical stature, and Yassir Arafat still had the reigns of control. Oslo wasn’t quite yet dead and Barghouti was regarded as a “moderate” and a presumed leader of the Palestinian people
He told us that PA leader Arafat supported a two-state solution (in hindsight, I wonder), and Mr. Barghouti believed that there would eventually be a State of Palestine existing peacefully beside a State of Israel. The only two issues he told us where he believed there would be difficulties were concerning Jerusalem and refugees.
I am reminded of these photographs in light of the release this month of Gilad Shalit for 1027 Palestinian prisoners, several hundred of whom have “blood on their hands.”
Mr. Barghouti was a leader of the First and Second Intifadas, and though he supported the peace process when I met him, he later became disillusioned. After 2000 he went on to become the main figure behind the Al-Aqsa Intifada in the West Bank. He is credited with founding the Tanzim.
Mr. Barghouti was accused by Israeli authorities of directing numerous attacks and suicide bombings against Israelis. He was arrested in 2002, accused of the murder of Israeli civilians and attacks on Israeli soldiers, tried and convicted on charges of murder, and sentenced to five life sentences. Mr. Barghouti refused to present a defense to the charges brought against him, maintaining throughout that the trial was illegal and illegitimate. The Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery has called him “Palestine’s Mandela.”
When I led a group of Temple Israel leaders to Israel last November, we met with the head of the Palestine News Agency, Ma’an, in Bethlehem. He told our group that without question, Marwan Barghouti is the most popular Palestinian in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that Israelis are speaking with him continuously, and that should he ever be released from prison he would become President of the State of Palestine once it is established and eclipse all Fatah and Hamas leaders.
It is questionable whether Barghouti supports a two-states for two-peoples resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It is also questionable whether any Israeli government would release him either in advance of or as part of a peace agreement. Yet, after the release of so many Palestinian terrorists with the blood of innocent Israeli men, women and children on their hands, what possible rationale can Israel advance for not releasing Barghouti? If such a release would facilitate bringing Israel and the Palestinians to an end-of-conflict agreement, I would support releasing Barghouti in a Tel Aviv second. From inside our own history, we cannot ignore the fact that both Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir also had innocent blood on their hands and each went on to become Prime Ministers.
By the way – President George W. Bush has far more blood of innocent Iraqis on his hands than any Palestinian terrorist ever, to the tune of thousands of lives. Be assured, I will never put Bush’s photograph on my wall – but I might put Barghouti’s there if he could make peace with the State of Israel.