Commentary Magazine


Topic: Marwan Barghouti

Barghouti and the PA Succession Question

The Tower magazine calls attention to the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion’s latest survey, which finds that Marwan Barghouti would be the popular pick if presidential elections were to be held for the Palestinian leadership. Barghouti, a founder of an Arafat-era paramilitary wing of Fatah, is currently serving life sentences in Israeli prison for his role in several murders, though he is believed to be behind even more terrorist attacks than those for which he was convicted.

Two things about Barghouti have remained constant over his career: he is soaked in the blood of innocents, and he is exceedingly popular among Palestinians. The two are, obviously, not unrelated. Such a result is of course troubling, but it should be noted that, according to the poll, the Palestinians are merely choosing one terrorist over other terrorists. The problem goes much deeper: the pipeline for Palestinian leadership remains greased with blood.

An understandable reaction to the poll will be: So what. Mahmoud Abbas is now in the tenth year of his four-year term, so immediate succession doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue right now, and Barghouti is in prison anyway.

But there are a few differences this time around. First, the Hamas-Fatah unity deal means it’s more likely that there will actually be elections in the near future. Second, Salam Fayyad’s exit means there isn’t at least a competing pipeline to leadership. Had Fayyad stayed on, he probably couldn’t win an election himself, but he might have staffed the bureaucracy with future contenders who were also reformers, and he might have effected some sort of change in the governing culture. Third, it is not out of the question that Israel would release Barghouti in some sort of prisoner exchange if the Israeli government thinks he’d be a preferable successor than the others in the race.

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The Tower magazine calls attention to the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion’s latest survey, which finds that Marwan Barghouti would be the popular pick if presidential elections were to be held for the Palestinian leadership. Barghouti, a founder of an Arafat-era paramilitary wing of Fatah, is currently serving life sentences in Israeli prison for his role in several murders, though he is believed to be behind even more terrorist attacks than those for which he was convicted.

Two things about Barghouti have remained constant over his career: he is soaked in the blood of innocents, and he is exceedingly popular among Palestinians. The two are, obviously, not unrelated. Such a result is of course troubling, but it should be noted that, according to the poll, the Palestinians are merely choosing one terrorist over other terrorists. The problem goes much deeper: the pipeline for Palestinian leadership remains greased with blood.

An understandable reaction to the poll will be: So what. Mahmoud Abbas is now in the tenth year of his four-year term, so immediate succession doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue right now, and Barghouti is in prison anyway.

But there are a few differences this time around. First, the Hamas-Fatah unity deal means it’s more likely that there will actually be elections in the near future. Second, Salam Fayyad’s exit means there isn’t at least a competing pipeline to leadership. Had Fayyad stayed on, he probably couldn’t win an election himself, but he might have staffed the bureaucracy with future contenders who were also reformers, and he might have effected some sort of change in the governing culture. Third, it is not out of the question that Israel would release Barghouti in some sort of prisoner exchange if the Israeli government thinks he’d be a preferable successor than the others in the race.

It’s interesting to note just how similar these stories have been throughout the post-intifada years. Contemplating the Abbas-Barghouti rivalry in the debate over succeeding Yasser Arafat, the New York Times noted in late 2004:

While it is not certain that Israel would release Barghouti if he won the election, the fact remains that whatever the outcome, he will present the Palestinians and Israelis with very difficult options. If he wins but is not set free, the Israelis and the Bush administration would be seen as depriving the Palestinians of democratic choice — something they have advocated as part of enabling Palestinians to create a democratic and responsible political system.

In such an event, Barghouti would become as much a symbol of Palestinian democracy and resistance as Arafat was the embodiment of the Palestinian nationalist movement.

If he loses the election, he will nevertheless have split the vote to the extent of depriving Abbas of a clear mandate to marginalize his radical Islamic opponents, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to negotiate with the Israelis and Americans for a lasting settlement from a position of popular strength. And there is the additional possibility that a third candidate, like Barghouti’s cousin Mustafa, a human-rights activist, could emerge as the marginal winner.

Palestinians have always found Abbas somewhat underwhelming, and Barghouti has always presented this complicated challenge to Israeli political strategy. But the Israelis must also ponder whether their preference for Barghouti is worth releasing an arch-terrorist. Their dealings with Arafat may have convinced them that just because a Palestinian leader has the credibility to lead doesn’t mean he will. Yitzhak Rabin famously dismissed concerns about how Arafat would get his people in line as long as he actually did. In the end, Arafat was a coward, and Israelis have to wonder if Barghouti is as well.

This all demonstrates, once again, the steep hill to climb to strike a just and lasting peace deal with the Palestinians. It rests on the remote possibility that someone like Abbas or Barghouti would transform themselves into a Mandela or even a Michael Collins. It’s not impossible, sure, but no one would advise holding your breath.

The real path to peace would be a transformation of Palestinian society that didn’t elevate whichever candidate killed the most innocent men, women, and children. And such a society needs a government that doesn’t promote violence and hate; a government that provides services instead of no-show jobs; a government that empowers its own people rather than subjugates and steals from them; a government that allows real political competition so the people have a choice instead of a mirage of democracy or accountability.

If Marwan Barghouti is the best option to succeed Abbas and lead the Palestinian government, then Abbas is destined to leave the Palestinian Authority no better than he found it.

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Three More Palestinian “No’s” to Peace

After the visits to Washington by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this month, it’s clear that Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks are at an impasse. If one were only listening to the statements coming from President Obama and Kerry, you’d think the obstacle to continued talks was their perennial whipping boy Netanyahu and not Abbas, whom they went out of their way to praise for his supposed commitment to peace. Yet while the Israelis have been prepared to accept Kerry’s framework for continued talks, albeit with misgivings about the direction of the process, it is the Palestinians who are digging in their heels and won’t commit to the framework or to keep talking after April. Demonstrating just how strong he thinks his hand is with the Americans, Abbas delivered three significant “no’s” to Obama last week that call into question both the Palestinians’ intentions as well as the future of the current process:

Abbas “went to the White House and said ‘no’ to Obama,” [Israel’s] Channel 2 news reported, quoting unnamed American and Israeli sources. Specifically, the report said, Abbas rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also refused to abandon the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and their descendants — a demand that, if implemented, would drastically alter Israel’s demographic balance and which no conceivable Israeli government would accept. And finally, he refused to commit to an “end of conflict,” under which a peace deal would represent the termination of any further Palestinian demands of Israel.

It must be understood that a framework without these three elements is a formula for continued conflict, not peace. Moreover, according to a report in the Arab press, Abbas had some demands of his own before he would agree to keep talking even with a framework that did not include the three points he has rejected. He wants Israel to release the last of the more than 100 terrorist murderers it agreed to free in exchange for his agreement to return to the table last year plus one more: Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who is currently serving five life-in-prison sentences for five murders.

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After the visits to Washington by both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas this month, it’s clear that Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East peace talks are at an impasse. If one were only listening to the statements coming from President Obama and Kerry, you’d think the obstacle to continued talks was their perennial whipping boy Netanyahu and not Abbas, whom they went out of their way to praise for his supposed commitment to peace. Yet while the Israelis have been prepared to accept Kerry’s framework for continued talks, albeit with misgivings about the direction of the process, it is the Palestinians who are digging in their heels and won’t commit to the framework or to keep talking after April. Demonstrating just how strong he thinks his hand is with the Americans, Abbas delivered three significant “no’s” to Obama last week that call into question both the Palestinians’ intentions as well as the future of the current process:

Abbas “went to the White House and said ‘no’ to Obama,” [Israel’s] Channel 2 news reported, quoting unnamed American and Israeli sources. Specifically, the report said, Abbas rejected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also refused to abandon the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and their descendants — a demand that, if implemented, would drastically alter Israel’s demographic balance and which no conceivable Israeli government would accept. And finally, he refused to commit to an “end of conflict,” under which a peace deal would represent the termination of any further Palestinian demands of Israel.

It must be understood that a framework without these three elements is a formula for continued conflict, not peace. Moreover, according to a report in the Arab press, Abbas had some demands of his own before he would agree to keep talking even with a framework that did not include the three points he has rejected. He wants Israel to release the last of the more than 100 terrorist murderers it agreed to free in exchange for his agreement to return to the table last year plus one more: Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who is currently serving five life-in-prison sentences for five murders.

As the Times of Israel notes, the release of Barghouti, who led the terrorist Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade during the second intifada (and was therefore actually responsible for the deaths of hundreds and injury to thousands more Israelis and Palestinians than the mere five civilian deaths for which he was convicted), would be a coup for Abbas and might give him the kind of political breathing room to keep talking. If he were sprung, Barghouti would also be seen as Abbas’s successor since the spilling of so much Jewish blood has enhanced his political stock among Palestinians. If, as is likely, the Israelis refuse, that would allow Abbas to once again blame Netanyahu for obstructing the peace process.

The Barghouti demand may be just window dressing intended to strengthen the always shaky political standing of Abbas as he serves the ninth year of the four-year term as president of the PA to which he was elected in 2005. But the key to understanding his negotiating strategy is his apparent confidence that nothing he does or says will cause the United States to call him out for his intransigence and blatant insincerity.

Indeed, though Kerry attempted to create a framework that was more or less on the terms that the Palestinians have always demanded–an independent state whose borders would be based on the 1967 lines that would include a share of Jerusalem–they have refused to assent to it since it would obligate them to actually end the conflict and recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn. Obama’s decision to publicly hammer Netanyahu while praising Abbas seems to have emboldened the Palestinian to think he has carte blanche to up the ante on the Israelis while giving nothing in return. That Kerry and Obama cheerleaders like the left-wing J Street group have endorsed Abbas’s refusal to say those two little words—Jewish state—that would indicate his willingness to envision actual peace only reinforces his reluctance to give an inch.

Israelis are now expected to release the last of the murderers Abbas demanded as a ransom for his presence at the table just as he is abandoning it with the extra insult that the names of the terrorists on the list are actually Israeli citizens rather than residents of the territories. The bottom line is that after issuing three historic “no’s” to Israeli peace offers including statehood in 2000, 2001, and 2008, Abbas has now added three more refusals that add up to yet another instance in which the Palestinians have rejected a compromise that would end the conflict. How many more “no’s” will convince the administration that Abbas hasn’t the courage to challenge the Palestinian political culture of intransigence that he helped create and therefore must be held responsible for the deadlock rather than Netanyahu? Right now, Abbas is betting the number is infinite.

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Friedman’s Clueless Middle East Twofer

After so many years of being wrong about the Palestinians being ready to make peace with Israel, it is difficult to take New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s Middle East advice columns seriously. But his latest effort in this genre contains some whoppers that got our attention even if they only provide more proof  the veteran writer is still hopelessly out of touch with reality.

Today’s “twofer” of Friedman gems starts out with praise for imprisoned Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti. Friedman gives a testimonial to Barghouti as an “authentic leader” and describes his call from prison for a new campaign of “non-violent” protest against Israel as just the ticket to bring peace. But what Friedman doesn’t understand is what makes Barghouti “authentic” to Palestinians is his role in the murder of Israeli civilians (for which he is currently serving five life sentences), not his notions about a switch to Gandhi-style activism.

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After so many years of being wrong about the Palestinians being ready to make peace with Israel, it is difficult to take New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s Middle East advice columns seriously. But his latest effort in this genre contains some whoppers that got our attention even if they only provide more proof  the veteran writer is still hopelessly out of touch with reality.

Today’s “twofer” of Friedman gems starts out with praise for imprisoned Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti. Friedman gives a testimonial to Barghouti as an “authentic leader” and describes his call from prison for a new campaign of “non-violent” protest against Israel as just the ticket to bring peace. But what Friedman doesn’t understand is what makes Barghouti “authentic” to Palestinians is his role in the murder of Israeli civilians (for which he is currently serving five life sentences), not his notions about a switch to Gandhi-style activism.

Friedman advises Palestinians to take up Barghouti’s plea for “non-violence” (which according to Friedman includes the throwing of lethal rocks at Israelis as well as a campaign of economic warfare against the Jewish state) but to accompany it with specific maps showing what peace terms they will accept from Israel. On the surface that makes sense, because as Friedman says, Israel would then be faced with a tangible peace proposal that it would likely accept. Yet Friedman ignores the reason why the Palestinians have never made such a practical proposal and are unlikely to do so now.

The problem from the Palestinian point of view with Friedman’s advice to throw rocks wrapped in maps showing possible territorial swaps is that to do so means recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state. And that is something no Palestinian leader has ever had the courage to do no matter where Israel’s borders would be drawn or how many settlements would be uprooted.

Let’s remember that Barghouti’s mass murder spree took place in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli peace offer that was not much different from the scheme Friedman now thinks the Palestinians will accept. PA leader Yasir Arafat turned down Ehud Barak’s offers of a state in 2000 and 2001 and answered it with a terror war that cost more than 1,000 Israelis their lives courtesy of killers like his Fatah cohort Barghouti. Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas walked away from another such offer in 2008. With the Islamists of Hamas now joining Abbas in a new coalition, the odds that the PA will be able to accept a similar offer are zero.

Yet Friedman still thinks the Palestinians can make Israelis “feel morally insecure” about holding onto territory by another bout of rock throwing. But the reason why Israelis don’t “feel morally insecure” is because, unlike Friedman, they aren’t prepare to ignore the results of two decades of Middle East peace processing during which they have traded land and received terror instead of the peace pundits like the columnist promised. He’s right that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes the Palestinians won’t make peace because he “thinks it’s not in their culture.” The problem for Friedman is they have already proven many times that it isn’t.

What makes this discussion so pointless is that the Palestinians don’t need a change in tactics. They don’t have to throw rocks or promote boycotts even if those activities are more attractive to their foreign supporters than suicide bombings. All they have to do is negotiate. Netanyahu has already said he’d accept a two-state solution and, as Friedman understands, the vast majority of Israelis would support him if he were presented with a deal that ended the conflict. Just as in 1977 when Egypt’s Sadat went to Jerusalem, the Israelis are ready to deal. The problem is not whether the Palestinians realize how best to make Israelis “morally insecure” — a point that is as meaningless today as it was 35 years ago — but that, unlike Sadat, they aren’t actually willing to live in peace alongside the Jewish state.

The other whopper in Friedman’s column is his second suggestion: a proposal that Israel assist in the creation of a viable secular Palestinian state in the West Bank that would promote a free-market economy that would be a model to the Middle East. He thinks this is essential, because if violence erupts, the new Islamist leadership in Egypt will exacerbate it.

For years, Friedman has been promoting Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and “Fayyadism” as the coming wave of Palestinian politics. But Fayyad’s name isn’t mentioned once in Friedman’s column. That’s because the moderate, who is a favorite of both the U.S. and Israel, has no constituency among his own people and is being chucked out of office by Abbas to appease his new Hamas partners. Israel would like nothing better than a free market-trading partner in the West Bank led by a man such as Fayyad as opposed to another Islamist wasteland such as currently exists in Gaza. The problem is the Palestinians prefer Hamas to Fayyad or the advice of the clueless Friedman.

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