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Why Is Israel Ignoring the Next Palestinian President?

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Just over a month ago during Operation Pillar of Defense, I met the man who it seems will one day be the next Palestinian president. The meeting took place in Hadarim Prison in central Israel with the permission of the authorities. I had not seen him for more than 10 years.

In April 2002, he was arrested by Israeli army forces in a friend's house in Ramallah. Those were the days of Operation Defensive Shield, and "Abu Al-Qassam" - better known in Israel as Marwan Barghouti - tried to hide from Israeli security forces. In the end, he surrendered to the troops that surrounded the house in one of the northern neighborhoods of Ramallah.

Since then he has sat in prison and was convicted of the murders of five people. He is considered the architect of the second intifada and the main party guilty of turning it into a hard, bloody armed conflict - different from the first intifada, at least at the beginning. Barghouti, as opposed to the myth in Israel, was one of the most popular people in the territories even before his arrest. But there is no doubt that since his imprisonment he has become a superhero, an admired leader, one of the few whose picture can be seen both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Barghouti has been banned from interviews with the press over the past decade, and only once was he permitted to be interviewed, by Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya television in 2006 just before the elections for the Palestinian parliament, in hopes that the interview would improve the chances of Fatah. Maybe that was why he was so surprised to see me and Zvi Yehezkeli, the Arab affairs reporter for Channel 10. It started with a conversation in his cell, together with Ahmad Barghouti, who acted as his aide in the early 2000s and was one of the founders of the Al Aqsa Brigades. After that it turned into a television interview in front of the camera.

He looked thinner than the Barghouti I knew, partly because he runs every morning in the prison yard. His sense of humor is the same as it was and most of all his wise view of Israeli and Palestinian politics remains. Only a few days after the start of the Gaza operation, he knew to forecast exactly the strengthening of Hamas support in the West Bank and Gaza, mostly as the result of the killing of Ahmed Jabari. He also explained in a simple manner that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would have to go the United Nations to request the upgraded status of a non-member state, otherwise Abbas would have suffered enormous political damage.

Barghouti is aware of his power and status. He staunchly refused to say whether he would run in the next election for the Palestinian presidency, and only said he would decide when the time came. But his declarations and actions testify to his intention to run on the behalf of Fatah or independently - if the elections ever take place. During our talk, he reminded us that recent polls show he would win such a race, and recommended that Israeli decision makers understand that a leader with a "combat history" - in his words - could bring peace. But all the polls conducted in the territories in recent years show something exceptional: Barghouti would have easily beaten any Hamas candidate for president. Even the most recent polls that showed Hamas growing greatly in strength showed Barghouti would win handily, even though Abbas was shown as losing to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in the polls.

This is the reality that Israel refuses to deal with. Barghouti will be elected as president at some stage, it seems after Abbas decided to retire. What will Israel do then? The choice must be to talk to Barghouti. True, he is a convicted murderer, but in the past we have signed peace treaties with terrorists with blood on their hands. The alternative to Abu Al-Qassam in the future will be Hamas, as for now there is no other heir to Abbas in Fatah. Barghouti is not Abbas. He will not give up on the right of return and he is not afraid of conflict with Israel. He warns a third intifada will break out because of Netanyahu's government policies on the West Bank. But still, we must talk to Marwan Barghouti because of his support in the Palestinian public and because even after 10 years in prison he remains a big supporter of two nations for two peoples.

Jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti appearing in court in Tel Aviv in 2002.Credit: Archive / AP
Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti: a Palestinian Mandela?Credit: Reuters

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