During the mid-1990s, Marwan Barghouti and his close friend Qaddoura Fares initiated a number of meetings with representatives of the Israeli peace camp. They presented themselves as people committed to turning the Oslo process into a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine by May 1999, the date that had been determined in bilateral negotiations.
Barghouti and Fares came across as young, confident leaders whose long years in prison had made them immune to criticism of excessive dovishness or cooperation with Israel. The next generation of Fatah that they represented considered itself prepared to support the peace agreement once it was signed, even in the face of Hamas and the other refusal organizations that had pledged to thwart any final accord.
The permanent-status agreement, as is now well known, was not signed by May 1999 as had been determined. When Ehud Barak replaced Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, he signed an additional agreement with Yasser Arafat pursuant to which the signing of the permanent-status agreement was deferred to September 2000.
In May 2000, when I was serving as justice minister in Barak’s government, Barghouti and Fares asked to meet with me. They warned me there were no indications that an agreement could be reached
by September, and they told me that if by that time no significant steps had been taken, a popular uprising would break out – an uprising, they implied, that they themselves would lead in order to prevent Hamas from rousing the Palestinian street up against the Palestinian Authority.
I warned them against being shortsighted, and told them that we had a rare opportunity to reach a permanent-status agreement in the near future. If violence were to break out in the middle of this process, I warned, then it would be all but impossible to complete the peace process.
Roughly two years later, I met Fares, who was one of the Palestinian negotiators for the nonbinding Geneva Accord. We crossed paths again in October 2003, when we both became signatories to the agreement.
Barghouti, however, I have not met since our conversation in 2000, when he warned of the impending uprising. I have seen him on television screens. One time we even debated each other on BBC, although from different studios. I told him he was not the same Barghouti I had gotten to know nearly a decade earlier.
I understood that he had been drawn into the vicious circle of violence in order to compete with Hamas, and that he didn’t know how to stop the intifada that he himself had started. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinians, were being killed, and Hamas was only getting stronger and stronger.
From the moment he was arrested and brought to trial, the judges had no choice but to convict him. The evidence that he was responsible for directing terrorist acts was overwhelming, and his punishment was determined accordingly. He himself did not recognize the authority of Israel’s courts to try him, and he was not prepared to defend himself.
Since being sent to prison, his status has only grown. Today he is the most popular leader in the West Bank and Gaza. Mahmoud Abbas was able to run as Fatah’s candidate for the Palestinian presidency solely because Barghouti – from prison – took himself off the ballot. From his jail cell, he was involved in all the discussions that led to this year’s cease-fire between the Palestinian factions. From prison he continues to lead policy; almost all the heads of the Palestinian government and many Israelis make pilgrimages to see him.
His overwhelming victory in the Fatah primaries – he won 85% of the votes cast in Ramallah – confirms what the public opinion polls have shown in recent years: Marwan Barghouti is the uncontested and most popular leader of the Palestinian Authority.
Barghouti will be released. It almost certainly will take place as part of a permanent-status agreement. It could come about as part of a prisoner swap with an organization like Hezbollah.
If the latter is the case, then it would be preferable to do it now. Once Barghouti is free, he will be able to join Abbas and help him to lead the areas under P.A. control. If Israel is interested in a strong Palestinian partner that is capable of administering law and order and of standing up to Hamas, this is Israel’s opportunity.
Barghouti is no saint, and there is every reason to argue that he is responsible, if only indirectly, for the murder of innocent people. However, almost all conflicts similar to ours come to an end when those responsible for instigating the violence sign an agreement.
And when someone asks us – as they inevitably will after we release Barghouti – how we can look the orphans and the widows in the eye, we will tell him that our job is to prevent future orphans and widows.
Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister, was the primary architect of the Oslo Accords.
This piece appeared in The Forward on December 2nd, 2005