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Marwan Barghouti, serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail, is a key sticking point in negotiations between Israel and Hamas over kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.
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.