Last week I wrote about two photographs I have in my drawer – one with former President George W. Bush who I met in 2000 in the run-up to the Presidential “selection” and the other with jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti who I met in Ramallah in 1998. I will never hang my photo with Bush on my wall as the blood on his hands in Iraq to me is a source of profound shame to the United States. The one with Mr. Barghouti, also with blood on his hands from his leadership in the 2nd Intifada, I may hang one day – and hopefully will be able to do so if his release from prison eventually leads to a two-states for two-peoples final resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with him as President of Palestine. Here is an excellent piece published yesterday on Mr. Barghouti in the International Herald Tribune.

Op-Ed Contributor

Release Marwan Barghouti

By AVINOAM BAR-YOSEF
Published: November 8, 2011

When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently called on Israel to release more Palestinian prisoners in advance of any possible negotiations, he was setting a condition that he probably knew Israel would balk at. One of the prisoners on his list, Ahmed Saadat, is accused of killing an Israeli minister. More significantly, another one, if released, would most likely soon take Abbas’s place.

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·         Times Topic: Marwan Barghouti

That has not escaped Israeli leaders. In fact, freeing Marwan Barghouti, who is regarded as the sole Palestinian leader who enjoys the full trust of Fatah and the Palestinian public, is said to have figured prominently in high-level Israeli consultations as a means of retaliating against Abbas for his bid for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations, and as a way of ushering in a new and less corrupt generation of Palestinian leaders.

The Israeli peace camp has often called for the release of Barghouti, but the security establishment has strongly opposed it. The 52-year-old, life-long activist is held responsible by Israel for directing many attacks and suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, and he was sentenced in 2004 to five life sentences.

But in his earlier years as a Palestinian student leader and then member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, he also opened channels not only with the Israeli left, but also with the Israeli center-right, because he believed that an agreement could not be achieved with only the “peaceniks.”

I knew him well in those years, before he turned militant. He speaks Hebrew, and never denied the right of the Jewish people to a Jewish state. And while he always made clear to his counterparts that a Palestinian state would have an Islamic character, and was proud of being a Muslim, he also expressed contempt for Islamic fundamentalists.

Above all, he has never been associated with the corruption of the Palestinian establishment that formed around Yasser Arafat. While a student at Ramallah’s Birzeit University, his main efforts were invested in the refugee camps: social work, aid to the ill and the poor, cleaning the streets.

In 1987 he was deported by the late Yitzhak Rabin, then minister of defense, because of his role in preparing the first, less violent, intifada. Barghouti spent seven years in exile, keeping his distance from Arafat’s corrupted entourage in Tunis. He was allowed back in 1994, under the Oslo Accords signed by the same Rabin, and in 1996 elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council, where he was a strong critic of the corruption in Fatah. In 1995 he was among the founders of Tanzim, an armed, grassroots offshoot which played a significant role in the second intifada, far more violent than the first.

So why would Israelis, including some from the intelligence community, seriously consider releasing Barghouti?

For one thing, he and Tanzim represent the next generation of secular Palestinian leaders. One of the biggest mistakes of the Israeli establishment and American envoys over the past two years has been their failure to open back channels to Tanzim, a group also ignored by Abbas and his officials.

Barghouti would also form a powerful leadership team with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Like Barghouti, Fayyad is regarded as being above any dirty dealings. He has structured an impressively efficient bureaucracy. He is rightly courted by the Obama administration and many Israelis. It is well known that there is no love lost between him and Abbas, but the Palestinian president needs Fayyad to ensure a flow of funds from the West.

The trouble is that Fayyad is regarded by the Palestinians as a professional, as the C.E.O. of the Palestinian Authority, but not as its leader. Many experts believe that Israeli and Western negotiators should encourage cooperation between Fayyad and Barghouti. The endorsement of Tanzim would bring Fayyad and his reforms critical support from the Palestinians.

This may be why some in the Israeli leadership, those who are interested in achieving a two-state solution to the conflict, see Barghouti as a possible partner, even if his sins are not forgiven. At least he is honest, and has the trust of the Palestinian people. Abbas, after all, is Arafat’s former deputy, and hardly a saint in Jewish eyes, and at 76 he appears largely concerned now with his legacy.

To hold the peace process hostage to Barghouti’s release raises an impossible hurdle for any Israeli politician. Abbas and his associates understand this well. But even if the Israelis cannot release him now, at least they should immediately initiate a back channel to Tanzim, and allow its representatives unencumbered communication with the jailed Barghouti.

The world should understand that there is a new Israeli phenomenon: most Israelis have moved to the left when it comes to the peace process and are ready for compromise even if, for tactical reasons, they vote for the right. A majority of Israelis would support a two-state deal if it included a Palestinian state that recognized Israel as what it is, a Jewish state, and the Palestinian right of return was limited to the new Palestine, while the Jewish right of return was limited to Israel proper. They do not believe that Abbas is ready at this point to accept this.

If such an understanding could be reached with Tanzim and Fayyad, then Barghouti could be released to take his place in the landscape of Palestinian leadership.

Avinoam Bar-Yosef is the president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute and a former chief diplomatic correspondent for the daily Maariv.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 9, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: Release Marwan Barghouti.
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