Analysis: The "Palestinian Nelson Mandela"

KOBAR, West Bank — The most important man in Palestinian politics is neither president nor prime minister. He doesn’t shuttle between meetings at the U.S. ambassador’s residence and the Israeli foreign ministry. In fact, he doesn’t go anywhere. He’s in an Israeli jail.

Marwan Barghouti, 50, is serving five life sentences handed down by an Israeli court for the murders of a number of Israelis and a foreigner between 2000 and 2002. Though Barghouti was a leader of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the rival group Hamas is demanding his release in return for the freedom of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped and held in the Gaza Strip.

The release of Barghouti, who’s sometimes called “the Palestinian Nelson Mandela,” is a key sticking point in negotiations between Israel and Hamas over Shalit. Israeli officials are prepared to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many who killed Israelis in terror attacks. But Barghouti is among a coterie of senior Palestinian politicians Israel doesn’t want to give up.

Why is that so important? Because many Palestinians see Barghouti as a leader who can reunite them, at a time when they’re deeply divided — Fatah against Hamas, Gaza against the West Bank, pro-Iranian against pro-U.S.

A fluent Hebrew-speaker, he has a record as favoring the old Oslo peace accords with Israel, while refusing to eschew violence, which he regards as the right of an occupied people. That makes many Palestinians feel he’d lead them toward peace with a firmer hand than their current leadership, which they often see as weak in the face of American pressure and apparent Israeli intransigence.

Could Barghouti do it? Well, this tiny, bustling, barrel-chested charmer had the power to break the Palestinians apart with the second intifada. Perhaps he retains the street cred to do the job in reverse.

Most journalists explain the onset of the intifada’s violence in 2000 with tales of faltering peace talks or “provocative” visits to the Aqsa Mosque compound by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon. I’d sum it up differently. With two words: Marwan Barghouti.

When Yasser Arafat returned to govern the Palestinians in 1994, he divided his leadership. The “Outside” leaders, who returned from decades in Lebanon and Europe, sewed up all the best jobs in the ministries and the security establishment. With disdain, Palestinians called them “the Tunisians,” after their last place of exile.

The “Inside” leadership, in turn, felt cheated. They had lived through the occupation and been jailed during the tough years of the first intifada, which they, after all, had headed and which had been the point of pressure that led to Israel’s willingness to make a peace deal at all.

Barghouti headed the Inside leaders. Born in Kobar, this small, welcoming village in a glen near Ramallah, he co-founded the Fatah youth movement in his teens, was first arrested by Israel at 18, and was key to the first intifada, which began in 1987. (He was deported to Jordan by the Israelis and coordinated the intifada from there.)

This gave him greater support among ordinary Palestinians, who knew and respected him, as opposed to the unknown or, at best, distant figures of the Outside leadership. Yet, under the Oslo Accords, leaders like Barghouti were stymied. Arafat put Outsiders in control of all the cash, jobs, and favors.

Outside the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah in November 1997, I chatted with Barghouti alone. He made some remarks that I simply scribbled in my notebook and attributed to a combination of bluster, bluff and sour grapes.

“The Inside leadership still feels they don’t have what’s coming to them,” Barghouti told me in his rapid speech. “Former intifada leaders, who were very important, are nothing now. Not one of them is in the leadership of the Authority. The people who lived through the intifada will insist on freedom. As a result, maybe the intifada will be renewed, but maybe this time with more violence.”

In the end, Barghouti became so disenchanted with Arafat’s regime that, when violence broke out in September 2000, he took hold of the uprising and used it to bring the entire Oslo edifice crashing down on Arafat’s regime. His thinking: If Oslo were destroyed, the Outside leaders would lose their power and Arafat would have to turn to Barghouti.

His comments outside the Palestinian parliament came back to me, and in the early days of the intifada I understood why the Israelis and Palestinians had been engulfed in violence that eventually cost thousands of lives: Arafat didn’t handle Barghouti right.

The Israeli prime minister at the start of the intifada, Ehud Barak, understood that. In talks with Arafat just before he was defeated by Sharon in February 2001, Barak demanded that the Palestinian chief rein in Barghouti, who was leading bloody, daily demonstrations at Israeli checkpoints. Barak later said that Arafat turned to his aides, shrugging: “Who does he mean? Who’s he talking about?” said Arafat, who simply didn’t want to discuss his upstart rival, according to Barak.

Barak later described Arafat’s reaction as “bullshit.” It was. Arafat knew Barghouti’s importance better than anyone.

The reason Israeli leaders balk at Hamas’s demand for Barghouti’s release is because they know it, too.