Could Barghouti be the Palestinian to make peace with Israel?

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Could Barghouti be the Palestinian to make peace with Israel?

Ismail Haniyah (image created in Shutterstock)

Here’s a thought experiment: the guns have fallen silent in Gaza. Hamas has been severely incapacitated. Benjamin Netanyahu has been ousted as Israel’s Prime Minister, replaced by a broad, national coalition.

The new Israeli government’s thoughts turn to the future. Scarred by the events of October 7 and the human cost to both sides of the Gaza crisis, a growing number of Israelis and Palestinians want to give peace talks another go.

Israel has an elected government that could embark on talks. But who can Israel talk to? Who has the backing of Palestinians — crucially — in both Gaza and the West Bank? Who would be willing to negotiate on the clear understanding that recognition of the state of Israel is a prerequisite? And who could deliver a deal that sticks?

For decades the international community has clung to the idea that peace in the Middle East could be imposed from the outside: essentially by American power and Arab money. Time and again this has proved a dangerous illusion. A go-between can, well, go-between warring parties. But, as every peace initiative in history shows, all you can do is take a horse to water.

Ami Ayalon is a straight-talking Israeli war hero with the ageing good looks of a combat veteran from central casting. Ayalon headed both Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, and the country’s navy. He thinks he has the answer.

Ayalon believes the Palestinian who ticks all the boxes has been sitting in an Israeli jail for 22 years. He’s talking about Marwan Barghouti, the most senior Palestinian leader behind bars and by far the most popular, though not a man widely known to the world beyond.

A veteran of the 1987-93 and 2000-2004 intifadas or uprisings, Barghouti is serving five life sentences for his role in the death of Israelis during the second intifada.

Ayalon told the Guardian recently, that Barghouti is the only leader who can lead Palestinians to a state alongside Israel “because he believes in a two-state solution and because he won his legitimacy by sitting in our jails.”

Prison to power is a well-trodden path in the post-colonial history of the 20th century: Jomo Kenyatta, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, to name but a few. Jail time is a distinct plus on an aspiring leader’s CV.

Many Israelis of course would be horrified at the thought. South African whites were aghast when convicted ANC leaders were released to negotiate the country’s transition to black rule. In Northern Ireland the bitterness among Unionists at having to deal with ex-members of the IRA lingers. But that is the hard logic of post-revolutionary politics.

If Israel wants someone to talk to who stands half a chance of delivering, they could do worse than this 64-year-old veteran.

Baghrouti was born in a small West Bank village near Ramallah. He joined Fatah, the movement founded by the late Yassir Arafat, at 15. He spent his first night in an Israeli jail as a teenager. He rose to prominence in the second Intifada which kicked off following the failure of the Camp David peace process in 2000.

Baghrouti’s credentials as a resistance figure are long. In 1987 he was deported by the late Yitzhak Rabin, then Minister of Defence, for his role in the first intifada. Barghouti spent seven years in exile. Astutely he steered clear of Arafat’s increasingly corrupted entourage in Tunis. He was allowed back in 1994 following the Oslo Accords.

In 1996 Baghrouti was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council, where he openly criticised corruption among Palestinian leaders grown fat under an evermore oppressive occupation. He was a founder of Tanzim, an armed, grassroots Fatah offshoot which played a significant role in the second, deadlier, intifada. His hands are not clean. But he has street cred.

He has not been idle in prison. He has taught himself Hebrew and English. He acquired a Master’s degree in history and a PhD in political science and international relations from Bir Zeit university, Palestine’s most prestigious learning institution.

He exerts considerable influence over the Palestinian movement. According to recent polls, most Palestinians want him to lead them. A survey of 1,200 Palestinians in December 2022 by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Research in Gaza and the West Bank showed Barghouti beating his rivals by some margin.

Perhaps most important is the fact that Barghouti is not a “from the river to the sea” Palestinian. Not many are, in truth. He favours a two-state solution, based on the internationally accepted formula enshrined in the UN’s totemic Resolution 242, passed in 1967 after the Six-Day War.  This calls for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from all occupied territories and the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of all states.

Ayalon’s argument is simple. Israel needs peace because it can’t “win” against a Palestinian movement that has not and, in all likelihood, never will accept Israel’s occupation. But unless the Palestinians have hope, Israel will never have peace. To do that it needs someone it can talk to.

That’s not Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, widely viewed as a weak and corrupt collaborator. And it’s certainly not Hamas, or its leader Ismail Haniyah, who will be held responsible by many Palestinians for the cataclysm that has befallen Gaza.

The Palestinian movement has proved surprisingly resilient over the years, despite decades of infighting, humiliation and setbacks. But it has been poorly led.

Arafat, the keffieh-wearing patriarch of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) who died in 2004, was charismatic but deeply flawed. His reach invariably exceeded his grasp. He made headlines by brandishing a gun at the UN but he let the possibility of peace slip through his fingers more than once.

Once Hamas took control of the Gaza strip after the 2007 elections, the Palestinians were fatally split. Neither Hamas nor the PA have held elections since. Netanyahu drove the wedge deeper by tacitly encouraging Hamas’s hold over Gaza. He believed this would put an end to a Palestinian challenge to Israel’s authority.

But this has proved ultimately self-defeating and, witness October 7, tragically mistaken. His strategy guarantees neither peace nor victory but a costly, brutal, exhausting and permanent state of war. What good is Israel’s dynamic, enterprising miracle of an economy if its citizens can’t sleep soundly at night?

Nobody is talking about talks right now — let alone peace. A dialogue under a Netanyahu-led government and Hamas in control of Gaza is inconceivable. Israel is still in shock.

Instability in the region is spreading. Iran, unsurprisingly, is shaking the tree. Its latest attack on opponents on Pakistani soil is designed to remind the world that it’s a player. It is also behind provocations by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

There are plenty of reasons for pessimism: extremist Palestinian factions like Islamic Jihad would do their best to wreck an agreement. Israeli settlers might never let it happen. Israel could split. Civil unrest might follow.

An agreement would have to be underwritten by the great powers, including Russia. That would be a mission.

For those who are content with Israel’s current trajectory or who see no other option than permanent subjugation of the Palestinians, the man in that prison cell is irrelevant. But for those in Israel, in Palestine and beyond who think another go at peace is worth a shot, the logic of someone with Barghouti’s pedigree as an interlocutor merits consideration.


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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 65%
  • Interesting points: 77%
  • Agree with arguments: 60%
43 ratings - view all

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