Marwan Barghouti: The Equalizer

By James Gundun – Washington D.C.

Conflicting inhabitants of the Holy Land, if nothing else, must surely agree that the universe works in strange ways. God by any name operates beyond human understanding. Deep inside an Israeli prison cosmic balance awaits in Marwan Barghouti, Fatah strongman and political game-changer, who sits a step away from freedom.

Of course this step might be a mile wide and a year long, and if Israel had its way Barghouti would never see daylight again. Releasing a man convicted in an Israeli civilian court of five murders and implicated in dozens more is no sure thing – a PR disaster – but Israel only has itself to blame for Barghouti’s potential resurrection.

Multiple IDF operations have failed to bring home IDF soldier Gilad Shalit since he was captured in 2006, and Israel has accepted concessions as the only resort. Releasing 1,000 high value prisoners, including Barghouti, for one captured soldier is proof that Israel hasn’t gotten the better of Hamas. Overwhelming force and covert actions haven’t produce the desired results.

Finally Hamas has brought Israel down to its level and is making Jerusalem pay a steep, some would say stupid, price for Shalit. Said one Hamas source, “This is a red line. There is no chance the deal will go through without his release."

In so far as Israel fostered the circumstances for Barghouti’s escape, his opportunity for success is purely Israeli-made. Outgoing Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas wouldn’t have tested him anyway, according to Barghouti’s poll numbers, but Israel and America’s vice-grip on the peace process cleared his path to power.

They did the dirty work for him, forcing Abbas out just in time for the 2010 elections. And run Barghouti will, telling the Italian Corriere Della Sera, "Following a deal, I will be ready to submit my candidacy.” He’s already campaigning.

"Betting on negotiations alone was never our choice,” he said soon after Abbas’s resignation. “I have always called for a constructive mix of negotiation, resistance, political, diplomatic and popular action.”

Barghouti is Israel and America’s worst nightmare. Still polling in the mid 60’s-20 points ahead of Abbas – he’s charismatic and eager for action. Couped up in a cell for five years yet still believing the election is a lock, he’s loaded with ideas on how to obtain a Palestinian state, peacefully or violently.

He will make Israel and America long for the good times of the resolute but passive Abbas.

Radical changes to the peace process would follow Barghouti’s ascension, but for practical purposes we will focus on the most significant possibility. Hamas is a clear victor in any prisoner exchange, evident by rumors of America and PLO opposition, but primarily in the release of Barghouti, who tops his agenda with reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

"I do not see that there are fundamental political differences between Fatah and Hamas," said Barghouti to Israel and America’s dismay. "In the shadow of the failure of negotiations and the absence of an Israeli partner for peace, the necessary strategy is firstly ending the division and restoring national unity.”

A Fatah official in Ramallah told the Jerusalem Post, “It will look very bad for Fatah and the Palestinian Authority if Hamas manages to release Marwan. We hope that the Israeli government won’t make such a mistake, because it would strengthen Hamas.”

Clearly Hamas cannot be isolated by the international community or a physical barrier like the Gaza blockade. No clever propaganda will reverse the reality that Israel lost the Gaza war. The IDF emerged militarily supreme, but Israel lies in ruin on the political battlefield, of which military is only one aspect in counterinsurgency.

As war crimes continue to haunt Israel, Hamas weathered its storm and emerged as the potential kingmaker in Palestine. When Barghouti says, “Israel will finally understand that Hamas’ demands cannot be ignored," he isn’t just speaking about his own release. What if Hamas frees him through the resistance he so cherishes, then becomes president?

Imagine Hamas’ Ismail Haniyah as prime minister – and as a direct result of Israel’s actions. The situation would be vastly different if Israel hadn’t undermined Abbas to the point of collapse, but it dug a deep hole by dictating the peace process.

"There is no excuse in the world that prevents national reconciliation, especially in light of the latest developments and the blocked horizon for negotiations," Barghouti recently said from his cell.

Israel is naturally terrified of his power and the possibility of him teaming with Hamas. Every day an Israel official denies he’ll be released, citing him above all other prisoners as the most dangerous. They mean it too, Barghouti is the most potent political threat Israel would face since Yasser Arafat.

"There are no plans to release Marwan Barghouti," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently stated. "He is the king of murderers and won’t be freed."

If he stays in jail then the story ends, but anticipation is building to such levels that denying him at the last moment won’t be safe. Deporting him from the West Bank if he’s released, as Israel demands, is also unrealistic. Palestinians hunger for a leader, Hamas for a partner.

The movement is already building behind him.

Palestinians need Marwan Barghouti. They’ve become Israelites, wandering the desert in search of a homeland and in their case, a shepherd too. They need him to lead by example, to stand up to Israel, reorganize and re-energize Fatah, and reconcile with Hamas so that their full potential can be unleashed. They need him to restore equilibrium to the Holy Land.

And the Holy Land needs it. Conflict between Israel and Palestine conforms to the nature of each participant – strong and weak. The result is an inequality that pervades negotiations, military operations, and civil building projects like settlements. There is no healthy exchange, no push and pull.

The Palestinians are being pushed by Israel, with President Obama providing additional muscle. Their strategy has failed to produce any progress towards a two-state solution, only asymmetrical warfare with no end in sight. Barghouti may not be such a nightmare for Israel after all. He is what Palestinians desperately need, but Israel needs him too. Needs the challenge and corresponding pressure.

Israel has grown complacent with the weak and disjointed Palestinians. Marwan Barghouti is more than balance sorely lacking in the region. He’s a wake-up call for Israel to get serious on a two-state solution – exactly what it needs.
– James Gundun is a political scientist and counterinsurgency analyst based in Washington D.C. He contributed this article to Contact him at The Trench, a realist newsletter:

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