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.

6 thoughts on “Free Marwan Barghouti?

  1. I don’t know enough about Palestinian politics to even venture a guess, but how do you know that freeng Barghouti will “unite” them. Is Hamas going to rally behind him? Isn’t this just as likely to divide them even further?

  2. Dan,
    Nelson Mandela claimed that he entered upon the armed struggle with a campaign of sabotage attacks on South African infrastructure targets such as electricity pylons in Dec. 1961 precisely to keep radicals in the black community in South Africa from engaging in terrorism. Whereas among the Palestinians the term “armed struggle” has been merely a euphemism for terrorism. Because Palestinian politics is so split among Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the various Marxist front organizations based in Damascus, Barghouti’s stature among Palestinians in general is not comparable to Nelson Mandela’s. When Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 for leaving the country without a passport, the liberation struggle was split between his African National Congress and the splinter Pan-Africanist Congress that had split from the ANC in 1959-60. The PAC failed to mount an effective armed struggle until after the ANC had ended its own in 1990. Israel should be careful to ascertain what it is getting for the release of Barghouti before it releases him. He was convicted of the murder of five civilians in 2003 (?). Admittedly, he committed the murders under Arafat’s orders, but he was part of the Palestinian terrorist network and the leader of those within Fatah attempting to compete with the Islamists in the realm of terrorism.

  3. Tom, didn’t you write in a previous post on Northern Ireland that one lesson learned is parties in armed conflict cannot wait until one party completely stops terrorist attacks, that negotiations have to happen anwyay?

  4. Dan,
    What I meant by party was community i.e. Sinn Fein could participate while dissident republicans were still involved in terrorist attacks but Sinn Fein had to foreswear the use of violence. Everyone but the IRA considered this to have been binding on the IRA as well, as the organizations were linked.

    If Barghouti were to be released it should be after Fatah agrees to give up terrorism/terrorism as a means. Israel has in the past made swaps with the Palestinians in the seeming belief that one Israeli is worth a hundred or hundreds of Palestinians. That is a very arrogant and delusional belief. It is more like one Israeli soldier is worth 3-4 Palestinian guerrillas. And often those captured are not the highest quality of soldiers.

  5. I thought Fatah had already given up terror as a means.

    I think the principle of 67 borders as boundary, accepted by all states, all parties in the region, is so attractive a prospect, that Israel should JUMP ON IT.

    The fantasy of a Jewish state from Sea to River should be abandoned. Its a past phenomena, not a present one.

    It astounds me that any that call themselves religious read Torah and conclude that there is any compelling instruction to occupy the land, rather than follow the commandments.

  6. Two problems with this rosy scenario, one Hamas is in the saddle. And they’re not in any mood to compromise. Why should they, Israels red lines just keep moving. Second, he shouldn’t get a free pass for murdering Jews.

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