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Ron Ben-Yishai
Should Barghouti be freed?
Releasing Barghouti in Shalit deal would be good for Hamas, and possibly for Israel too
There is no doubt that Israeli willingness to release Marwan Barghouti could greatly advance a deal that would see the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Such willingness is a temptation that Hamas would find difficult to resist, and therefore it would be likely to show greater flexibility on its other demands; First of all, because Hamas would be able to prove to the Palestinians that it succeeded where Mahmoud Abbas failed.

 

The Palestinians would see this as proof not only of the wisdom of Hamas negotiators, but also of the path taken by the group, which espouses a stubborn armed struggle and utilizes any means available in order to bring Israel to offer small and humiliating concessions – to the point of reaching the ultimate victory.

 

Hamas presents this path as an alternative to the model proposed by the Palestinian president and his camp, which espouse compromise. For Hamas, Barghouti’s release would mark a propaganda victory that it would be able to leverage in order to gain prestige and score political points in the domestic Palestinian arena and in the Arab theater.

 

Another reason why Hamas is interested in seeing Barghouti set free is the possibility of introducing an element that is closely associated with Hamas, both ideologically and politically, into the Fatah leadership. Indeed, just like Abbas, Barghouti openly supports negotiations to resolve the conflict, yet during the second Intifada he was among the leaders of the armed struggle and terror campaign – for Hamas this attests to ideological proximity. Moreover, during his time in prison Barghouti displayed the willingness and ability to engage in dialogue with Hamas members and reach compromises with them. This is unlike Abbas and Salam Fayyad, who condemn terrorists, doubt the armed struggle’s effectiveness, and demand that Hamas accept their complete authority in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

 

Strategic interest 

Therefore, Hamas has a strategic interest in pulling Barghouti out of his Israeli prison cell. If the group is able to do so, in the framework of a deal to free Shalit, this would be a winning card in the struggle for the hearts of Palestinians and for the leadership of the Palestinian people – both in Gaza and in the West Bank. Yet these are precisely the reasons why the Israeli government will find it difficult to free Barghouti to Hamas.

 

At this time, all of Israel’s actions are aimed at seeing the Hamas rule fail and bringing about a situation whereby Hamas is defeated militarily and no longer constitutes a military and political force that competes with Mahmoud Abbas and his people. It is clear that Barghouti’s release would greatly undermine these efforts. This is a difficult dilemma, with Gilad Shalit’s fate hanging in the balance.

 

Today, Israel knows that Shalit is in good condition and that there is a good chance to secure his release through negotiations. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? The confrontation with gunmen in the Gaza Strip could escalate and require more decisive action on Israel’s part, which could lead to Gilad Shalit being hurt; nobody can guarantee that the other armed groups that hold the Israeli soldier will not change their mind and decide to wrest the negotiations away from Hamas. The Ron Arad case may be repeated. Would it be appropriate to put Gilad Shalit at risk just so Hamas does not score an achievement?

 

Can Barghouti revive Fatah? 

Another consideration comes into play here that may make it easier for the Israeli government to resolve this dilemma. There are quite a few public figures and politicians in Israel, both Jewish and Arab, who argue that Barghouti’s release is an Israeli interest regardless of the Gilad Shalit affair. These figures argue that if Barghouti is able to join the current Fatah leadership, he could make a significant contribution to Mahmoud Abbas’ status and help him implement the reforms that he has been trying to lead, without success thus far.

 

Barghouti supporters argue that if he is able to join Abbas and Fayyad, this will create a winning troika; a leadership trio that would unite the disintegrating Fatah and boost the camp of those who support an agreement through negotiations.

 

This view is espoused by ministers such as Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Gideon Ezra, as well as Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and Meretz member Haim Oron. However, the Shin Bet security service presents the opposite estimate: In its view, releasing Barghouti from prison would greatly erode Israel’s punishment policy, which aims to deter terrorists from committing terror acts and killing innocents.

 

In addition, the Shin Bet and rightist politicians argue that Barghouti’s status has been inflated much beyond his true leadership weight among the Palestinians. They point to the fact that when Barghouti was still free he was unable to rise above the third level of the Palestinians leadership, and also failed when he competed in the elections for Fatah’s West Bank secretary general position during Arafat’s era. He just never was a part of the group of people who influence Palestinian policy.

 

A senior Shin Bet official says that it was only the imprisonment in Israel and the leadership position he acquired among security prisoners that upgraded Barghouti to the status of “the Palestinian Nelson Mandela.”

 

‘Essential link’

And what do the Palestinians say? Abbas, for example, is very concerned about the populist Barghouti overshadowing him and attempting to dictate a softer policy vis-à-vis Hamas. Other Fatah leaders also argue that Barghouti’s execution abilities are unimpressive and that he is not the cure for the organization’s current state. On the other hand, Fatah field activists argue that Barghouti could become an essential link between Abbas’ detached leadership and the wanted suspects who are willing to lay down their arms.

 

It is difficult to say who’s right. But nonetheless, because of Gilad Shalit, it is worthwhile to favorably consider Marwan Barghouti’s release. However, it would be good to insist on two demands in this context: First, that in exchange for an Israeli willingness to release Barghouti, Hamas would agree to drastically moderate its other demands on the Gilad Shalit front. Second, that Barghouti’s release will only be undertaken in the third phase of the deal’s implementation, about two months after Shalit is back home.

 

And another thing that is no less important: The Israeli government must do everything so that media reports would form the clear impression that Mahmoud Abbas was the central Palestinian element that ultimately convinced Olmert to release Marwan Barghouti.

 

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