Abbas’ Success Depends on His Successor

Convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti is the only Palestinian with the moral authority to achieve a two-state solution. If Israel releases him from prison now, it may just save the peace process.

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Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti appearing in court in Tel Aviv in 2002.
Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti appearing in court in Tel Aviv in 2002.Credit: Archive / AP

There is a silver lining to last week’s disastrous collapse of the U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians: we finally got a glimpse of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ exit strategy.

It’s smart. Israel should grab the opportunity with both hands.

Abbas said two things last week of enormous importance, and linked them with the future of the log-jammed peace talks.

First, he said that he could not, in his declining years, “betray” the Palestinians by signing the draft framework that is slowly emerging from the endless meetings hosted by the United States.

Second, he demanded the release of Marwan Barghouti from jail.

For years, like Yasser Arafat, Abbas has avoided the thorny question of who should succeed him as leader of the Palestinians. He celebrated his 79th birthday in March. The question of a successor is becoming urgent. His mandate as president of the Palestinian Authority expired years ago and he has announced that he will not run again.

The talk of betrayal is ominous. It suggests that the compromises Abbas feels he must make in order to sign a peace deal with Israel are too much for him to bear.

This is partly his own fault, and also reflects the long shadow of Arafat nearly a decade after his death. Neither of them have done much to prepare the Palestinian people for peace with Israel and the painful compromises that it will entail. Wherever the final border is drawn, whatever the final agreements on security, Jerusalem and refugees, both Israel and the Palestinians will have to make painful concessions.

Abbas is unsure that he can conclude any deal and make it a success. What he needs is a successor who can.

Enter Barghouti, the only Palestinian with the moral authority to sign such an agreement. Only he can persuade the Palestinians to make the ideological U-turn necessary to draw back from their current position of "pre-'67 lines or bust."

It won’t be easy for Israel to release him. He is serving five life terms after being convicted in a civilian court of involvement with at least five murders by Fatah thugs during the second intifada. There was overwhelming evidence that he provided money, weapons and logistical support to the killers.

But, as Yitzhak Rabin once said, you have to make peace with your enemies, not your friends.

Barghouti is a pragmatic believer in the two-state solution. Right now, he is the only Palestinian who can deliver it. He has already served 12 years in jail, so it's not as if he got away with murder.

I first met Barghouti at the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah in 1999 where he correctly predicted that a second intifada would break out unless a Palestinian state was founded within the year. Ever since, despite his descent into violence and murder, Barghouti has never stopped declaring his support for a two-state solution to the conflict. His violence, he said, was directed at the occupation, not the existence of Israel. That doesn't make him a nice guy, but it does make him a realistic partner for peace.

If Abbas dies, or steps down, the Palestinians will hold elections and Barghouti will win, even from behind bars. Then Israel will have to release him anyway. If the Israeli government is serious about peace, they should release Barghouti now and gain whatever diplomatic advantage they can from such a significant gesture. They may just also save the peace process.

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