American Jews Hamas Israel Middle East peace process Palestinians Peace Now

Free Marwan Barghouti?

What are the mainstream American Jewish organizations going to say if Israel releases a convicted murderer who is one of the Palestinians’ most powerful advocates of peace and a two-state solution?

o–Haaretz reports that:

“Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer on Saturday said that if Israel were interested in achieving peace, it had no choice but to free jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti. `Current negotiations [between Israel and the Palestinian Authority] are only virtual negotiations,” Ben-Eliezer said, adding “only the release of Barghouti could change things around.”

Asked about the current Palestinian leadership, Ben-Eliezer said “I have great respect for [Mahmoud] Abbas and Salam Fayad, but everything is now in the hands of Hamas. At this rate Hamas will soon take over the West Bank. The only person who could put a stop to that is Barghouti.”

Ben-Eliezer is known for having loose lips and a lack of self-control in his public statements, but he is a minister in the Kadima government, and it is hard to believe that Olmert and his people, or Livne and her people, were not aware that he was going to make these remarks. They come on the heels of reports that negotiators for Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive since the summer of 2006, are now discussing a Shalit-Barghouti swap.

Furthermore, former prime ministerial candidate and Labor activist Amir Peretz is launching a campaign to free Barghouti, whose letter touting peace and a two-state solution was read aloud at a rally marking Peace Now’s 30th anniversary on Tuesday.

Barghouti refused to cooperate in legal proceedings that sentenced him to life for five murders. He was one of the leading forces behind the “Prisoners’ Document,” drafted with the participation of Hamas prisoners, which called for a two-state solution and negotiations leading to a comprehensive peace. As a veteran of the first intifadeh and leader of the Tanzim, Fateh militants in the West Bank, he has the military credentials and, more importantly, the grassroots constituency that Mahmoud Abbas lacks.

There has already been a reaction from something called the Israel Hasbara Committee, which called Peace Now a “far leftist organization” and responded to the Barghouti letter by citing a recent poll in which a majority of Palestinians backed violence. (An aside: in Israel, the real far left is anti-Zionist, and does not count Peace Now among its allies, to say the least. I wonder what these people would call University of Haifa professor Ilan Pappe, whose latest book is The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. An “infinitely distant leftist?”).

No doubt the Israeli and pro-Israeli right will keep asserting that “we have seen this movie before, the decision to talk to Arafat and give him a base in the territories was an unmitigated disaster, Barghouti is a wolf in sheep’s clothihg, all Palestinian leaders –Abbas included– are wolves in sheep’s clothing, freeing someone with `blood on his hands’ will send a message that violence against Israelis will go unpunished, the only solution is to, uh, well, we don’t really have a solution, don’t change the subject…”

But what will the more centrist and center-right American Jewish organizations (like American Jewish Committee or ADL) say and do if the Olmert government, understanding that the current stand-off with an increasingly popular Hamas is accomplishing nothing, makes a brave choice, and sets Barghouti free? What will the Conference of Presidents do? Will they react the same way they reacted to the Oslo accords, and give tepid, unenthusiastic backing to what was essentially a courageous experiment? Will Jewish centrists stand up to their right wing as fervently as they have stood up to the non-Zionist and anti-Zionist left in this country and in Europe?

Let us hope they are faced with such a choice. How many times have we heard that what the Palestinians need is a Nelson Mandela, a leader who could both unite them and be a partner for the painful, complex negotiations necessary to free both peoples from an intolerable status quo? It is impossible to say with certainty that Barghouti could play a comparable role. It is possible to say with certainty that unless something dramatic occurs and Palestinians have a government with the ability to enforce a compromise –with Hamas’ cooperation, however begrudging– the current negotiations between the PA and Israel will not change the tragic facts on the ground. Without an enforceable compromise, we will never wake up from this nightmare. There is a chance, albeit slim, that Barghouti could help Abbas deliver an agreement that the Palestinians could conceivably accept, and then help to make it stick. It is certainly worth a try.

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