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November 27, 2005

Is Marwan Barghouti a Palestinian Ariel Sharon?
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Barghouti While all eyes are on the December 15 Iraqi elections, January 25 will bring Palestinian parliamentary elections that could have just as much influence over the future of the Middle East.  With Ariel Sharon hard at work building a new party, and Shimon Peres looking likely to assume the role of vice premier with responsibility for negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel seems poised to move forward.

If Fatah sweeps to decisive victory, January's poll could mandate Mahmoud Abbas to press ahead on a deal.  Or it could strengthen the hand of Hamas, reigniting violence and eroding the tentative Israeli political will t0 make the Gaza Strip withdrawal a prelude to a final settlement on the West Bank.   In a hopeful sign, support for Hamas has slipped in the latest polls, with a large majority of Palestinians now saying they support negotiations with Israel.   

In an interesting wrinkle, in Fatah primaries held in Ramallah over the weekend, the overwhelming victor was Marwan Barghouti, a long-time leader who is currently serving five successive life sentences in an Israeli prison for his involvement in terrorist activities.

The results have fueled speculation that a (long-discussed) pardon for Barghouti may be in the works.   Barghouti, 46 years old, represents a new generation of Palestinian leadership who commands the loyalty of radical youths to a degree Abbas never has.   A former leader of the notorious al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, Barghouti has "street cred" among Palestinians who believe they have no choice but to stand up to Israel through any means possible.

Though he's an avowed terrorist, there's more to Barghouti than his conviction for the deaths of four Israelis and a Greek monk in terror attacks.  He was a participant in and outspoken proponent of the original Oslo peace process in the early 1990s and has always favored a two-state solution.  As a member of the Palestinian legislative council after 1996 he led an aggressive campaign against Arafat's human rights abuses and corruption.  His commitment to clean government positions him to stand up to Hamas' most powerful line of attack against the sometimes feckless Fatah leadership. 

Barghouti has also spoken out against both suicide attacks and attacks against civilians within the green line.  This 2001 profile gives you a feel for the contradictions.

Both the Israeli and the Palestinian people have been pushed by their histories into positions of profound insecurity and deep suspicion of anything that endangers their security or their nationhood. 

Americans get the concept of "Nixon in China."   For both the Israelis and the Palestinians its become clear that at this point, with hopes dashed so often, only tested, trusted hard-liners will be given a mandate to compromise.   Given the drama and emotion that surrounds the conflict, charisma and a larger-than-life personality may be essential ingredients as well.  Shimon Peres' decision to join Sharon signals that even he finally accepts this.

The Israelis appear to have, however improbably, found in their ranks a man tough, battle-hardened, captivating and visionary enough to make a deal on their behalf.  But it takes two, and - let's face it -  while Mahmoud Abbas is trying, he may be too moderate, low-key and pragmatic to bring home a deal single-handedly.

The trick with "Nixon in China" type figures is that, by definition, their capacity for compromise and forward-leaning leadership is not manifest in advance.   If their flexibility were foreseeable, it would erode popular trust in them as an unyielding defender of the faith.   

Pardoning a convicted terrorist is no small matter (anyone tempted to oversimplify here should bear in mind that the Bush Administration has come out in support of Hamas' full participation in the election, arguing that it will be easier to disarm them after the vote).  But there are Israeli leaders who have had the chance to take Barghouti's measure, and at least some are saying a pardon ought not be off the table permanently.   Interestingly, does not specifically demand an unconditional release, suggesting that linking his freedom to a commitment to renounce violence might not be out of the question.

For now, a search for "Ariel Sharon" and "war criminal" turns up double the number of hits in google as does "Ariel Sharon" and "peacemaker."   If those numbers are to someday reverse, the Palestinians may first need to find their own Sharon.


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If a holocaust-denying, mass murderer like Abbas isn’t “hard” enough for the Palestinians, I shudder to think who they might find acceptable. How can we take any Palestinian leader seriously when their political organizations have formalized in their constitutions an a priori rejection of a political settlement.

Fateh Constitution

Article (12) Complete liberation of Palestine, and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence. [Fateh is engaged in a war of annihilation against Jews worldwide.]

Article (17) Armed public revolution is the inevitable method to liberating Palestine.

Article (19) Armed struggle is a strategy and not a tactic, and the Palestinian Arab People's armed revolution is a decisive factor in the liberation fight and in uprooting the Zionist existence, and this struggle will not cease unless the Zionist state is demolished and Palestine is completely liberated. [Strategies define military ends, so the very aim of Fateh is armed struggle, not political negotiations.]

Article (22) Opposing any political solution offered as an alternative to demolishing the Zionist occupation in Palestine, as well as any project intended to liquidate the Palestinian case or impose any international mandate on its people. [This is the a priori rejection of political settlements.]

Hamas Covenant

Article Eleven: The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up. Neither a single Arab country nor all Arab countries, neither any king or president, nor all the kings and presidents, neither any organization nor all of them, be they Palestinian or Arab, possess the right to do that. Palestine is an Islamic Waqf land consecrated for Moslem generations until Judgement Day. This being so, who could claim to have the right to represent Moslem generations till Judgement Day? This is the law governing the land of Palestine in the Islamic Sharia (law) and the same goes for any land the Moslems have conquered by force, because during the times of (Islamic) conquests, the Moslems consecrated these lands to Moslem generations till the Day of Judgement. [All lands previously conquered by the Caliphate belong to Muslims, and no one can negotiate Muslim rights to the land away. Hamas lays claim to land all the way to Austria, not just Israel.]
Article Thirteen: Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement. Abusing any part of Palestine is abuse directed against part of religion. Nationalism of the Islamic Resistance Movement is part of its religion. Its members have been fed on that. For the sake of hoisting the banner of Allah over their homeland they fight. "Allah will be prominent, but most people do not know... There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with. " [Political settlements are actually heretical which carries a death sentence under Islam. Only war can achieve Hamas’ aims for the Palestinians.]
Article Fifteen: It is necessary to instill in the minds of the Moslem generations that the Palestinian problem is a religious problem, and should be dealt with on this basis. Palestine contains Islamic holy sites. In it there is al- Aqsa Mosque which is bound to the great Mosque in Mecca in an inseparable bond as long as heaven and earth speak of Isra` (Mohammed's midnight journey to the seven heavens) and Mi'raj (Mohammed's ascension to the seven heavens from Jerusalem). [Hamas understands the Palestinian question as a religious issue.]

One could go on and on through the list. Palestinian groups have one common ideological element: rejection of any political settlement. Ever.

Moreover, any attempt to impose a political settlement will deterministically lead to a Palestinian civil war. It is very unlikely that anyone can govern Palestine until Palestinian political movements achieve the annihilation of Israel. Since that outcome is even more highly improbable than a peace treaty with Palestine, we are still left with perpetual war.

Palestinians with unlimited political aims striving for annihilation of their opponents; Israel with limited political aims striving to maintain a delicate balance in international relations.

Sharon’s brilliant disengagement plan will lead to civil war in Palestine, and the UN will be unable to countenance further terrorism from Palestinian political groups. Frankly, the Palestinians were fools to reject Oslo. It looks to me like they are now headed for a defeat.

Americans get the concept of "Nixon in China." For both the Israelis and the Palestinians its become clear that at this point, with hopes dashed so often, only tested, trusted hard-liners will be given a mandate to compromise.

How pathetic is human politics when the crazies need to be convinced before the obvious can be done? Does this mean only Bush or McCain can withdraw from Iraq?

In the mean time, while we wait for Sharon to become Begin:

A confidential Foreign Office document accuses Israel of rushing to annex the Arab area of Jerusalem, using illegal Jewish settlement construction and the vast West Bank barrier, in a move to prevent it becoming a Palestinian capital....

"Israel's main motivation is almost certainly demographic ... the Jerusalem master plan has an explicit goal to keep the proportion of Palestinian Jerusalemites at no more than 30% of the total." All of this, the document says, greatly reduces the prospects of a two-state solution because a core demand of the Palestinians is for sovereignty over the east of the city.

Jeez, can someone nuke that last commenter? I hate spam.

That said: I'm unsure Barghouti should get a pardon, as such. A pardon implies he never did the crime.

Rather, I think he should get clemency. He did the crime and did (some of) the time. Admits guilt, accepts responsibility, shows contrition. Only then should he be released.

And he freely acknowledges thereby that if he picks up the gun ever again, his life is forfeit.

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