“The Barghouti Dilemma”: A Strategic Challenge Lies in Wait for Israel on the “Morning after Abu Mazen”
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | December, 2022
|Photo: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine | CC BY 2.0|
The growing discussion in both Israeli and Palestinian arenas on “the morning after Abu Mazen” primarily focuses on the possibility of violent intra-Palestinian successor struggles developing, leading to the destabilization of the Ramallah administration, as well as to security threats posed against Israel, namely waves of terrorism, and Hamas’ utilization of the possible vacuum and chaos to establish impact, possibly even control, over some areas of the West Bank or, indeed, the region as a whole.
As part of this discourse, one should delve deeply into an analysis of Marwan Barghouti’s future steps and impact on the nature of the Palestinian system, as well as his relations with Israel. This Palestinian leader and senior Fatah official has been incarcerated for over 20 years (since Operation "Defensive Shield" in 2002), and should, presumably, have lost his ability to have any direct effect on the goings-on and strategic decision making within the Palestinian system.
Yet, in practice, despite his long imprisonment (on account of 5 murders during the second Intifada), Barghouti remains of high stature within the Palestinian system. He has been crowned as the most popular and favorite candidate for future Ra`is (The Palestinian president) in almost every public opinion poll conducted in the Palestinian territories in the last decade. This view is particularly prevalent among the younger generation, some of whom were born after he had been incarcerated, who treat him as a symbol, never having known him as an actual public figure.
At a time when the Palestinian leadership’s public image is severely low, for it is perceived as tainted by corruption, nepotism, calcification and political repression, Barghouti is seen as an appealing ideal reminiscent of past leaders: One who is willing to pay a huge personal price for fighting for his people, stands his ground against Israel (inter alia by legitimizing armed conflict), does not abuse his power, and represents the social periphery (coming from Kufr Kobar, near Ramallah) that currently spearheads the Palestinian system.
Broad public support for Barghouti is in stark contrast to the fact that among Fatah ranks, support for Barghouti is limited. After many years of “cleansing” Fatah of his rivals, Abu Mazen has finally established a movement that is solely based on his supporters, having removed all supporters of Muhamad Dahlan, his sworn enemy, and weakening competing power hubs, such as the Barghouti camp, which is currently comprised of a small number of senior officials in the West Bank, most of whom are engaged in public and political activity pertaining to prisoners, and do not rank among top Palestinian decisionmakers and influencers.
Barghouti himself clearly and repeatedly says that he intends to run for Palestinian presidency, particularly as part of a future general elections campaign, even if he is to do so from behind bars. He was incorporated into the 2006 elections on the Fatah list, and was elected to serve as a member of the Palestinian parliament (leading to protests that almost resulted in the splitting of the Fatah list), and in 2021, a list of senior Fatah officials rallied around him, competing with the movement’s official list. Barghouti was further involved in various initiatives promoting intra-Palestinian reconciliation (such as the Palestinian Prisoners’ Documents in 2006), leading Hamas to be sympathetic toward him too.
Over the years, voices were heard in the Israeli system calling for the government to reconsider Barghouti’s release in order to allow him to establish himself as the future leader of the Palestinian system. In this context it has been argued that Barghouti is widely popular because he is identified as a middle generation leader who grew up “domestically” (unlike the older generation, who mostly came from the Diaspora and took over the PA).
It was further argued that, since he is a Fatah representative, a dialogue on a future arrangement may be advanced with him despite his radical approach. This discourse gradually faded as Barghouti’s clout in the Palestinian system declined, and in view of the growing consensus in the Israeli system against releasing a man formerly involved in terrorist attacks claiming Israeli lives.
To a large extent, Barghouti’s personal character reflects fundamental processes within the Palestinian system, most of which are somber in nature. First, he represents the lost generation, the one that was raised domestically and focused more on the 1967 problems than the 1948 issues; the one that spearheaded the first intifada, and was supposed to head the Palestinian system, but was cast aside by the leaders from Tunisia after the establishment of the PA, and challenged by a young Palestinian generation that identifies deep-seated corruption among both older and middle generations, and is repulsed by the political system in general.
The very fact that there is such collective yearning for Barghouti attests, to a large extent, to the void in Palestinian leadership, expected to further exacerbate on “the morning after” Abu Mazen. The gallery of candidates that could succeed the Palestinian president ranges from political wallflowers to individuals the public finds despicable. Against this backdrop, many among the Palestinian public are feeling nostalgic, hoping for the return of “pure leadership” while ignoring the fact that its representative is behind bars, and that a future vote for Barghouti is more wishful thinking than an expression of support for a clear and implementable vision.
As mentioned, Barghouti is expected to weigh in heavily in any “morning after” Abu Mazen scenario, particularly in view of his uncompromising intention to run for presidency. Such scenarios will pose acute dilemmas for both the Palestinians and Israel, pushing an already challenged relationship to the edge, and raising concern, and perhaps even attempted interventions by external parties, while exerting pressure on Israel. It is a manifestation of the years-long attempt by Barghouti and his supporters to strengthen his image as “the Palestinian Mandela”, using the future elections not only as a platform for boosting his public and political power, but as a vehicle enabling his release from prison.
Concretely, if Barghouti would indeed win the Palestinian presidential elections, a complex situation will be created, whereby the Palestinian leader elected by democratic means is serving a life sentence in an Israeli correctional facility. Such a reality could cause disorder, as well as tremendous political confusion in the Palestinian Authority - which will be grappling with severe challenges following Abu Mazen’s departure - possibly leading to popular protests against Israel in the Palestinian system, or even within Arab Israeli society, alongside external pressure to allow a connection between Barghouti and the Palestinian arena, followed by a demand to consider his release from prison, particularly if the state of affairs in the West Bank will destabilize.
The incoming government is required to form the kind of strategy on the issue of the Palestinians that did not exist or only partly existed in recent years due to the ongoing Israeli political crisis. The question of what happens on the “morning after Abu Mazen” should play a key role in this process, and the poignant dilemma that Marwan Barghouti is expected to raise should also be underscored, as should the strategic implications of the steps he will take in future.
These prospects require a discussion on the policy employed vis-à-vis Barghouti in the immediate timeframe - namely the level of freedom he will be given to convey his messages and plans outside prison - as well as coordination with PA officials and other regional and international actors in this context. This challenge, like many others, illustrates the importance of maintaining good working relations between the incoming government and the PA – at least in the foreseeable future – and preferring them to any “revolutionary” step that would destabilize a situation that is already fragile in the West Bank, and potentially force Israel to face chaos that could project onto other arenas as well.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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