Seeing Barghouti Plain
That Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is culpable in the murder of tens of Israelis -- and a Greek Orthodox monk mistaken for a Jew -- is not in dispute. In collaboration with Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat, Barghouti provided West Bank terror gangs with cash and guns to stoke the second intifada. Convicted on five counts of murder by a Tel Aviv court, he is now serving a life sentence in an Israeli penitentiary.
The 52 year-old Barghouti's Israeli backers -- Uri Avnery's post-Zionist Gush Shalom, the Haaretz newspaper, novelist Amos Oz, former Meretz Party head Haim Oron, past Labor Party leader Benjamin Ben Eliezer and current Labor leadership contender Amir Peretz --- have anointed him the "Palestinian Mandela." That conjures up images of a principled, graying freedom fighter with the courage to move his people toward reconciliation. They say that when Mahmoud Abbas leaves the scene, Barghouti is the redeemer to lead "Palestine" to peace with Israel.
Indeed, in The Long Walk to Freedom, South African leader Nelson Mandela wrote that, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." But those who claim Barghouti walks in the footsteps of Mandela either think too much of the former or too little of the latter.
Who is Barghouti?
He belongs to a prominent Palestinian clan and was a youthful activist in the first intifada which sought to compel Israel out of Judea, Samaria and Gaza and claimed nearly 200 Israeli and over 1,300 Palestinian Arab lives. Israel jailed and deported Barghouti twice in the 1980s, only to see him returned as a senior Fatah leader after the 1993 Oslo Accords were signed. Fluent in Hebrew – The New York Times once described him as "charming, articulate and intelligent, even if a bit of a showboat" – he was a favorite participant at Israeli "peace camp" events.
Even as he proclaimed his commitment to peaceful coexistence – contingent on an Israeli withdrawal to the vulnerable 1949 Armistice Lines – he led openly violent demonstrations against the "occupation" and clandestinely co-founded Tanzim, a new Fatah-aligned terror faction.
During the second intifada, Barghouti served a ranking member of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades which carried out murderous attacks against Israeli civilians on both sides of the Green Line. Still, Barghouti has never stopped insisting that he opposes terrorism especially in pre-1967 Israel.
In prison, Barghouti has honed his gift for dissimulation outsmarting journalists, prison authorities and the Shin Bet intelligence agency which had granted him unparalleled perks including use of the warden's office to conduct media interviews. He swiftly reinvented himself as a "dissident" and scholar. Some Arabists worried, quite needlessly it turned out, that the Shin Bet had succeeded in swaying Barghouti toward genuine moderation.
In a recent interview with Time magazine [July 17, 2011] Barghouti, master of the oxymoron, called for "peaceful resistance…at this point in time." For Time's Karl Vick – who corresponded with Barghouti through his lawyers -- the "setting" (which the reporter could only conjure up) recalled Robben Island in apartheid South Africa. Having disingenuously smeared Israel with the insulting analogy, Vick promptly backpedaled: "Comparisons with Arafat are more apt."
Unsurprisingly, prison has made the charismatic Barghouti ever more popular with the Palestinian street which –like him – is ambivalent about the utility of yet another paroxysm of intifada violence. Barghouti is strong advocate of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and would defeat Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh (61-33 percent) in any Palestinian leadership contest. Following the "there go the people; I must follow them" style of leadership, Barghouti tells Palestinians what they want to hear: They are the "generators of the longest armed revolution in modern history" facing a colonialist enemy whose cruelty "is unparalleled." [Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Sept. 28, 2010]. Peace talks are futile in the quest to push Israel back to the old armistice lines; Palestinians should march in the millions this September to demand the UN unilaterally declare a Palestinian state on the PLOs terms.
The penny may have finally dropped at Shin Bet headquarters; prison authorities lately isolated Barghouti for unauthorized possession of a mobile phone.
In point of fact, there was never much evidence to substantiate the notion that the Palestinian Arabs want a Mandela-like leader. Certainly, their xenophobic war against Zionism is no parallel to the African struggle against apartheid. As for the straw man argument that Israelis reject Barghouti because of his violent history, it's worth recalling that Yitzhak Shamir, who was not squeamish about legitimate armed struggle, refused to talk to the PLO because he was convinced that the "peace" it offered was "the peace of the cemetery." [page 198 autobiography] And in shaking hands with the insalubrious Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin calculated – wrongly in turned out – that “You make peace with your enemies — not the Queen of Holland.”
Barghouti has shown no capacity for being able to move from enemy to real peace partner. Two years after his capture, Oslo architect Yossi Beilin blamed Arafat for leading his former interlocutor astray. Beilin recounted Barghouti telling him that his purpose in unleashing an orgy of violence against Israel was to finesse the Palestinian street which would otherwise fall to Hamas. Beilin found Barghouti's explanation "cynical" and "frightening."
True to form, Beilin got over his sense of betrayal and has joined other leftists in advocating Barghouti's release.
For Israelis not enamored with his charisma, what disqualifies Barghouti from the "Palestinian Mandela" moniker is not his history of malice, but his continuing refusal to abandon it. Barghouti two-state solution today is ominously reminiscent of Arafat's 1974 scheme for the phased destruction of Israel – which underpinned his approach to Oslo.
This Palestinian redeemer lacks the courage to tell his people that they can't have peace with Israel while insisting on the "right" of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees from the 1948 War, plus millions of their progeny, to "return" to what is today Israel. Nor will he tell Palestinian Arabs that the Jewish people have a legitimate historical, cultural and political connection to the land of Israel. Is he the Palestinian peacemaker to make the gutsy case that a single Jewish state, surrounded by 22 unfriendly Arab states will need security arrangements, including Palestinian demilitarization and defensible boundaries, before it can withdraw from most of its heartland.
The Palestinian Arabs have no realistic plan forward – beyond exploiting their automatic majority in the UN General assembly – and Barghouti is no Mandela because he's incapable of providing them with one. Rather than lead his people to a sustainable two-state solution, coexistence with Israel and, ultimately, healing and reconciliation he simply trails behind them toward one more dead end.
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