Let’s start at the end: if the most famous Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouti, is included in the looming swap deal between Israel and Hamas, the politics surrounding the regional conflict here will change dramatically. For a start his release from prison could end the current unbridgeable schism between the radical Islamist faction running the Gaza strip and the more moderate nationalist party of Fatah that controls the West Bank and, for the first time in years, create unity in the Palestinian camp. There’s still a big “if” here. Negotiations via the German mediator are to resume Monday, after the end of the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, and success is far from certain.
Hamas’s insistence on the release of Barghouti is a well-calculated political move to show its people that they are also concerned with prisoners affiliated to rival Fatah. Some Palestinian observers, however, believe that Hamas would like to see him remain in an Israeli jail, as his popularity poses an electoral menace.
The 50-year-old former Fatah leader, who was imprisoned by Israel in 2002 on charges of murdering Israeli civilians and attacks on Israeli soldiers, exerts great influence in Palestinian society from his cell. In contrast to the weak style of the current Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Barghouti is a charismatic figure and someone who has paid a heavy personal price for his views and actions.
For Israel Barghouti could prove useful too. At the moment politicians here are either faced by radical Hamas leaders who it finds impossible to negotiate with but who enjoy high popularity, or by Fatah leaders, who it is able to negotiate with but enjoy almost no popular support. Barghouti might be flexible enough for the Israelis and still be strong enough in the eyes of his people to carry them through difficult negotiations.
Last week Barghouti gave an interview to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera that was full of mixed messages. On the one hand, Barghouti said that Abbas’s mistake was to bet all his cards on negotiations with Israel, thus hinting that he would like to resume terror attacks and military operations. On the other hand, when asked what his goals were, Barghouti manifestly omitted the Palestinian refugees’ right of return – one of the main sticking points in the negotiations.
Judging by past experience, Israelis will be less concerned with his previous activities than with his future plans. The former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was responsible for far more Israeli deaths than any Palestinian leader. Still, when he decided to change course and to accept the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, he was awarded with all he wanted, which was the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. Many Israelis believe that if Barghouti is brave enough to tell his people it’s time to end the conflict, he might be rewarded with a similar land deal.