It may well be that the hunger strike of Palestinian security prisoners led by Marwan Barghouti has more to do with Palestinian Authority politics than conditions in Israeli jails. But while observers are focusing on Barghouti’s campaign to become Mahmoud Abbas’ successor, Jewish reactions to the imprisoned intifada leader may just as interesting.
While some on the Jewish left may harbor hope Barghouti will turn out to be the Palestinian Nelson Mandela, they would do well to put a cap on their enthusiasm. The same resume items that position Barghouti as a natural, if not likely, future leader of Fatah make him poison for those who wish to build support for peace either in Israel or the United States.
Prior to the Second Intifada, Barghouti was considered to be one of the Fatah Party’s genuine moderates. Whether that reputation was deserved, or if his post-intifada efforts to portray himself as uniquely capable of making peace with Israel are accurate, is debatable. But the facts about Barghouti’s crimes that were left out of the op-ed by him published in The New York Times last week – and later amended to include them - are precisely what makes him so toxic to Jews.
Barghouti seems like the ideal man to the 81-year-old PA President Mahmoud Abbas (currently serving the 12th year of the four-year term to which he was elected) because he has spent the last 15 years in an Israeli jail.
That’s an advantage in part because it absolves him of any responsibility in Fatah’s kleptocratic misrule of the West Bank. His status as the leader of Fatah’s Tanzim terror group during the Second Intifada also gives him credibility with Palestinians. The convictions that brought him five life sentences for being the mastermind of a terror campaign that murdered Israeli civilians make him seem a fitting successor to Yasser Arafat. Thanks to his involvement in terror he’s also a Fatah leader who can’t be described as a collaborator or weakling when compared to Hamas.
The Times op-ed generated a firestorm of criticism from American Jews and Israelis. Whether it was an omission or because the newspaper’s editors who are stern critics of the Netanyahu government were already invested in the Mandela narrative about Barghouti they left out the fact that he was serving time for multiple murders. For some, the Jewish Right’s reflexive efforts to dismiss Barghouti as a killer or an attempt to legitimize terror are an overreaction and indicative of its unwillingness to address the substance of his complaints. But even before this incident Barghouti was seen by such diverse figures as activist Uri Avnery and diplomat Alon Liel as an important figure and possible interlocutor for peace.
If the strike continues, sympathy for Barghouti is likely to grow especially among Netanyahu critics. But the favorable mention he and the strike got on the Facebook page of the pro-BDS Jewish Voices for Peace ought to serve as a warning for any supporters of the two-state solution inclined to get ahead of the curve when it comes to anointing him as the next Mandela.
Leaving aside whether treating Barghouti as beyond the pale is justified is almost beside the point. The recent skepticism voiced about the chances for peace in the near future by Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union is rooted in a belief that mainstream Israeli voters have no faith in the desire of the Palestinians for peace.
Even if we were to assume Barghouti would embrace reconciliation and peace in the fashion of Mandela the evidence for that dubious thesis is still more a function of wishful thinking than evidence. More to the point, telling even liberal Jews that the man who will bring peace is the unashamed perpetrator of a vicious murder campaign aimed at slaughtering innocent civilians is not exactly a winning political strategy.
With the peace process already discredited in the eyes of most Israelis the last thing the left should do is to embrace Barghouti. They’d be well advised to steer clear of his prison-based campaign to succeed Abbas lest they taint an already minority point of view further by association with the worst aspects of Palestinian politics.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer at National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.
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