Marwan Barghouti: Radical pragmatist
Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti will this week be sentenced to life in an Israeli prison. It will not dim his influence
Profile by Graham Usher
Barring events, on 6 June Marwan Barghouti will be sentenced for the murder of four Israelis and one Greek civilian. Israel's state prosecution is recommending five life terms. Few doubt he will receive or -- for a large swathe of Israeli Jewish opinion -- deserve them. "Whatever he was in the past, he was convicted today of murdering Israelis," said an Israeli government spokesman on 20 May, the day of the conviction.
But the past is important -- indeed, it is the only means to understand why Barghouti's enduring political influence, undiminished by two years behind bars, weighs heavily on Israelis and Palestinians. The reason is simple: through Barghouti's political evolution can be traced the Palestinian hopes raised by the Oslo process, its rejection in the Intifada of Al-Aqsa, and its possible future faced by an Israeli government with which no just peace is feasible.
Barghouti returned to the West Bank after seven years of forced exile in 1994. He championed the Oslo accords, arguing that they represented the most important Palestinian accomplishment since Fatah decided, in 1965, to "take up the gun" rather than wait, uselessly, for Arab armies to deliver Palestine.
For three years he practiced that faith. He was elected to the Palestinian Authority parliament in 1996 and waged a slow, attritional struggle for democracy within Fatah. He also held a dialogue with all sectors of Israeli political society, left, centre and right. "He had the telephone numbers of about half the Israeli Knesset," recalls one Israeli interlocutor.
His struggle for democracy within Fatah was based on the view that whereas "in the past Fatah earned its right to lead the Palestinian national movement by virtue of the armed struggle of its fighters and the blood of its martyrs, now we have a Palestinian National Authority on Palestinian soil we must earn our legitimacy from the democratic choice of its people".
The dialogue with Israeli politicians was born of the belief -- shared by many of the secular Palestinian leaders thrown up by the first Intifada -- that their main ally in the struggle for freedom was neither America, Europe nor the Arabs. It was Israeli Jews, and so required a strategy to persuade them that the Palestinians were a nation entitled to self-determination no less than they.
But -- like the Palestinian political generation he personifies -- Barghouti's disillusionment grew the more the process foundered. He felt betrayed by the failure of the Israeli left to fight a settlement drive that, under Labour and Likud governments alike, meant that Oslo translated to most Palestinians as a new form of colonial dispossession. As for the PNA, he criticised its domestic corruption and lawlessness as well as the "defeatism" it exhibited in negotiations with Israel.
By the summer of 2000 -- and especially after the failure of the Camp David summit -- the arms of criticism had replaced the criticism of arms. Inspired by the example set by Hizbullah in south Lebanon, Barghouti predicted that the "next Intifada" would mix popular protests with "new forms of military struggle". Three months later it did.
A new Barghouti was forged. He was no longer the Palestinian politician. He was the tribune of the "new Palestinian unity" embodied in the National and Islamic Forces and founder of a generation of Fatah-affiliated militias that acted in concert with their Islamist "brothers" rather than against them. In contrast to the silence of Yasser Arafat and the other Palestinian leaders Barghouti was lucid about what the Intifada signified: it was the Palestinian "war of independence", he said, and would continue as long as independence was denied.
Barghouti was captured in Ramallah in April 2002 during Israel's total military re-conquest of the West Bank.
"Are you going to kill me or arrest me?" he reportedly asked the Israeli soldiers.
Unlike many of his other Palestinian quarries, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon did not want Barghouti dead. He wanted him on trial in a Tel Aviv civilian court to criminalise the future Palestinian leadership he represented and the cause he espoused, often in flawless Hebrew. Most of the world refused the defamation. But many Israelis and some Americans were convinced, returning the charge Barghouti had thrown at them, that "there is no partner".
Which Barghouti will be sentenced next week -- the Oslo pragmatist or the Intifada radical?
"Marwan now is closer to the Marwan that existed prior to the Intifada," says Palestinian political analyst, Hani Al-Masri. "Before the Intifada he was a moderate and supported negotiations with Israel, including governments led by Likud and Shas. He has moved away from the alliance with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, although he is still closer to the Islamists than any other Fatah leader."
As evidence Masri cites the "crucial role" Barghouti played in the June 2003 Palestinian cease- fire when, via a mobile phone from his prison cell, he negotiated the terms with Khaled Mishal, Hamas' political leader in exile. The truce went up in the flames of a rogue Hamas bus bombing and Israeli assassinations in the West Bank. But the meaning was clear: Barghouti had thrown his weight behind Mahmoud Abbas's reformist government, the core policy of which was to end the armed Intifada and return to political negotiations.
But traces of the Intifada Barghouti remain, particularly the belief that a new Palestinian movement and new political process must be built out of the debris of the old. In April -- in the name of all Palestinian prisoners -- he issued a statement supporting Sharon's disengagement plan. It was, it said, "the most important achievement of the Palestinian Intifada after ten years of Oslo in which not a single [settler's] mobile home was removed and the number of settlers doubled".
The prisoners also called for a total end to the armed resistance in and from Gaza on condition that the Israeli withdrawal was complete, including from the Gaza-Egyptian border; there would be "full Palestinian sovereignty" over the Gaza Strip, including its sea and airports; and that all prisoners from Gaza would be freed. The statement also envisioned what "full Palestinian sovereignty" means under the conditions of Israeli occupation: "setting a date for local elections in Gaza and reaching clear understandings [between the Palestinian factions] over how Gaza will be run once Israel leaves", it said.
These were positions advocated by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul-Aziz Rantisi in negotiations with Fatah and the PA prior to their assassinations. Hamas sources say they remain the movement's policy today. They appear also to be Barghouti's.
"If Sharon leaves Gaza, the entire situation will change", he told the court on 20 May.
The distinction between an "old" and "new" Barghouti is thus spurious. He is now an alloy of the two, drawing political conclusions from the wreckage of both Oslo and the armed Intifada. Faced with an Israel under Sharon he is offering not peace but a truce, though one conditioned on practical Israeli moves, such as a withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantlement of settlements, and democratic Palestinian change, such as new elections.
And it is this radical pragmatism that explains his enduring appeal, in prison or out, and whether for the Palestinian fighter in Nablus, the intellectual in Ramallah or the Hamas official in Gaza. Alone among the region's leaders he understands that reform is not a trade for independence: it is one of the essential means through which independence can be realised. Or -- as he said from his prison cell in December 2002 -- Palestinian elections are the "democratic and legal way" to force the departure of "many Palestinian leaders and officials" who have failed "in their roles and responsibilities in this decisive battle".