Hamas’s latest negotiating ploy is to ask for Israel to release Marwan Barghouti, a popular Fatah leader who is serving a handful of life sentences for murder. Barghouti is often compared by the press and his Western admirers to Nelson Mandela, because his admirers have very active imaginations.
Freeing Barghouti is the “break glass in case of emergency” option for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The belief is that he has become both popular enough and moderate enough to lead the Palestinian Authority after Mahmoud Abbas, who is still alive and refuses to hold elections and therefore cannot be replaced by the Palestinian Mandela or the Australian Ghandi or the Ecuadorian Martin Luther King or the Scandinavian Dalai Lama or anyone else.
In the absence of any other changes, therefore, what freeing Barghouti would accomplish is the further destabilization of the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank. Hamas thinks this is a great idea. The Israelis are unconvinced.
Barghouti’s advocates in the West like to tout his support for a two-state solution. But Barghouti’s starting position is at the 1967 lines, from which Israeli-Palestinian negotiations moved on a decade and a half ago, so perhaps his supporters like him because he’d actually undo some of the progress made toward a two-state solution.
The other pro-Barghouti talking point has long been his renunciation of some violence in some places. (This is why calling him “the Palestinian Mandela” is deeply insulting to Nelson Mandela.)
Barghouti was the most prominent signer of a coalitional letter known as the Prisoner’s Document back in 2006. It was a manifesto of sorts for incarcerated Palestinians of various parties and stripes, including Hamas. That manifesto trumpets “[t]he right of the Palestinian people to resist and to uphold the option of resistance of occupation by various means and focusing resistance in territories occupied in 1967 in tandem with political action, negotiations and diplomacy whereby there is broad participation from all sectors in the popular resistance.”
This is the great compromise document. It boils down to: Kill Jews in the West Bank, Gaza, and at the Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem, but inside “Israel proper” just call general strikes and marches intended to bring the economy to a halt. Because Barghouti is a man of peace who has learned his lesson, apparently.
How could anyone say no?
At the risk of pouring cold water on this moment of great national reconciliation, there are no cheat codes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mahmoud Abbas, as previously noted, is still alive and refusing to hold elections. And the current brilliant idea is to release his more popular rival. This is a recipe for chaos, and if you think the Arab-Israeli conflict needs more chaos then feel free to make that case to the people who would have to live through it.
Another thing to note about Barghouti, as Elise Labott does in this smart piece on the need for Palestinian reform, is that he is “from the era of Yasser Arafat.” What the Palestinians need is to cultivate a new generation of possible leaders to counterbalance the next generation of Hamas. Barghouti may be younger than Abbas by two decades, but Abbas is quite old, so that doesn’t make Barghouti young. He is a veteran of the First Intifada, after all. He has been in prison for 22 years.
What the Palestinians should be looking for is a veteran reformer to lead the process while training younger reformers to take over, not to simply put a new carrot on the melting snowman.
Labott talked to Elliott Abrams about the PA reforms during the George W. Bush administration, which only happened because of Bush’s direct “involvement and pressure.” That means Biden will need to do the hard work, because Palestinians “will resist reform, and if the pressure isn’t coming from the President, change won’t happen.” Labott says that “the fact Washington is still playing musical chairs with the P.A. suggests [Biden] is not ready to get his hands dirty.”
That’s really the ballgame. Freeing a murderer to steer a sinking ship isn’t going to save anyone. Forget Barghouti. Fix the ship.