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Why a Jailed Dissident Is Palestine’s Best Hope

Why a Jailed Dissident Is Palestine’s Best Hope

By all accounts, the Fatah party congress held in Bethlehem from Aug. 4 to 11 — the first in 20 years for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ party — was a success.

It demonstrated democracy in action, the type that the White House would no doubt like to see throughout the Arab world. Fatah party members elected their own leadership. Based on the party’s predominance in the Palestinian Authority, the summit — held for the first time within the territory — held special importance for its political future.

Among the congress’s victors was Marwan Barghouti, who directed votes for himself and his allies from inside an Israeli prison, where he is serving five consecutive life terms for his leadership role in the second intifada. Despite his physical absence, Barghouti, a shrewd and charismatic reformist, loomed large: He is now a party heavyweight with uniquely broad support among Palestinians and even Israelis. A consensus is growing that he merits a leadership role. If he wins one, it will have a major impact on Fatah’s ability to tame Hamas and change the tenor of its relationship with Israel.

Barghouti came in third in voting for the Central Committee, which directs party policy. But he polled first among the "young guard" — Fatah members minted during the two intifadas, who are now in their 40s and 50s. This group tends to be more reform-focused and grass-roots-oriented than the older Fatah leaders, including Abbas himself. It also includes businesspeople and university intellectuals. On the basis of this support, Barghouti has declared his intention to run for the presidency in 2010, even if he is still behind bars. (If Abbas decides to run again, Barghouti might run for a second-in-command spot.)

There is a possibility, though, that he might be free by the next election. In his years in prison alongside Hamas leaders, Barghouti won the respect of the Islamist movement. Today, his name is likely at the top of the list for a potential prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has held captive for more than three years.

But the subject of Barghouti’s potential release is bitterly divisive in Israel, due to his alleged role in the second intifada. Some members of the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, have called for the prisoner exchange, including former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Others, such as Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, have insisted Barghouti — convicted for five life terms — should never walk free.

At the same time, there is a growing acknowledgement among Israelis and Palestinians that Barghouti’s broad appeal and reformist streak offer the best prospects for peace. Politicians in Israel see him as the best hope for strengthening the nationalist camp against Hamas — ironically, due to his close ties with the opposition party and thus his ability to influence them.

"Fatah needs a leader, and according to all the polls and information that we have, Marwan is the leader of the nationalist camp, not only of Fatah," Haim Oron, a Knesset member and head of the dovish Meretz party, told me. Oron visits Barghouti in prison on a regular basis and has good ties with his allies in the West Bank, including Fatah politician Qadura Fares, considered Barghouti’s eyes and ears outside prison.

"From [Barghouti’s] point of view, a two-state solution and finishing the conflict with Israel and an existing liberal state has always been his goal. Every Palestinian leader who speaks about a peace agreement knows more or less the parameters of the deal," Oron explained.

"If Marwan is out of prison, in one year we can find a new atmosphere. We need a national leader," said Fares, who spoke with me from his office in Ramallah. "Marwan can bring together all the factions and create a new structure and national identity that includes part of Hamas, the big groups, the intellectuals, and the secular." Fares himself signed the Geneva Accord — a private initiative that calls for a two-state solution and an end to the conflict — after getting the nod from Barghouti.

Barghouti does face some competition from within Fatah’s young guard in the form of Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan. Although Dahlan garnered fewer votes than Barghouti last week, he is a powerful member of the Central Committee and a favorite of Abbas.

But Dahlan does not hold the same promise as Barghouti — within Palestine or outside it. "Dahlan is a problem for the public because he hasn’t succeeded in convincing the majority of Palestinians that he is clean," said Fares, the Barghouti ally. His reputation for corruption would taint Fatah at a time when the party is attempting comprehensive internal reform. Further, Hamas despises Dahlan, as he made his name by cracking down on and allegedly torturing its leaders.

Although Fatah has become more popular of late — with about a 35 percent popularity rating, as opposed to about 20 percent for Hamas — there is still a consensus that Palestinian unity needs to precede negotiations with the Israelis. Thus, looking ahead, the man in prison, Marwan Barghouti, seems to be the right man for the job.