Mideast: Can Barghouti End the Gaza Impasse?

Marwan Barghouti doesn't get many visitors at his cell in the Haderim prison, a low-slung beige structure located along Israel's coastal plain. So the popular Palestinian leader was a little surprised two weeks ago to see the face of Ephraim Sneh, who until last month was the Jewish state's deputy Defense minister. For years, Israeli interest in Barghouti—currently serving five life sentences—has been mostly confined to a handful of marginal doves. Yet in recent months, as Hamas has gained momentum, even some members of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party have begun calling for the Fatah figure's release as a means to strengthen Barghouti's secular party at the Islamists' expense. At Sneh's jailhouse meeting, the men spent two hours talking in Hebrew about last month's Hamas takeover of Gaza and the details of Barghouti's case. The Israeli came away impressed. "I was profoundly convinced that his place was not in jail," Sneh told NEWSWEEK.

Sneh's position is shaped more by pragmatism than principle: now that Hamas is in control of Gaza, Israelis are left with few good policy options. For the moment, they believe their best hope lies in trying to strengthen secular leaders like President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. If daily life improves for Palestinians in the West Bank, the thinking goes, then the territory can be held up as a model for the Gazans who remain isolated under Hamas rule. To that end, Olmert pledged to release roughly $100 million in Palestinian customs receipts that Israel had been withholding; President Bush promised $190 million in aid to help bolster Abbas, and the Israeli government freed 255 Palestinian prisoners today in a gesture of goodwill. Abbas has also announced that he will hold new elections soon to put his strategy to the test. Still, both Israelis and Palestinians worry that the measures will be viewed as little more than political theater. For a "West Bank First" strategy to work, any concessions must be "quick and massive," says Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, who also favors releasing Barghouti. "It requires very painful decisions for the Israeli government," he says.

Yet if releasing Barghouti has come to represent just that kind of painful decision, the issue is also a reminder of why a "West Bank First" strategy has such long odds of success. To start, "quick and massive" concessions from Israel are probably not on the cards. After the violence that followed Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Israelis have become increasingly wary of unilateral steps. And a controversial gesture like the release of Barghouti or the removal of major settlement blocs would require a strong Israeli leader. With Olmert's approval rating in single digits, bold moves will probably have to wait for his successor. In the meantime, to keep his coalition in place, Olmert is relying on the political support of hard-liners like Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who considers Barghouti a killer who has ordered attacks on Israeli civilians. "The guy is a murderer," says Lieberman. Polls show two thirds of Israelis believe Barghouti should remain in jail.

In the meantime, Barghouti's Fatah allies are struggling to hold their ground. Already U.S. intelligence analysts are warning that Abbas may not have the clout to maintain control of the West Bank for very long. And some Israeli security officials worry that by openly expressing support for Abbas and Fayyad, the leaders will be made to look like Israeli collaborators. The American-educated Fayyad in particular, while respected in Washington as a reformer and well liked for his affability, seems particularly ill-suited to rally renegade Fatah militants. (He's not even actually a Fatah member; he belongs to an independent party called the Third Way.) "The man has no popular support," complains a senior Israeli security official, who did not want to be named in order to speak frankly.

Popular support is one thing that Barghouti has plenty of. Iconic images of the charismatic Fatah figure—in prison drab, shackled hands held aloft—are plastered all over the West Bank. Barghouti earned his street credibility during both the first and second intifadas; Israelis accuse him of being the founder of Fatah's armed wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade. He was arrested in 2002, and two years later an Israeli court sentenced him to five life terms, accusing him of ordering shooting attacks on Israelis. (Barghouti has always denied that he authorized attacks on civilians.)

Yet his time in Israeli jails has only enhanced his reputation among Palestinians, especially young Fatah militants. Pollster Khalil Shikaki recently released a poll showing Barghouti beating Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a head-to-head election by 24 percentage points; turnout would also increase dramatically if Barghouti were in the race, according to the survey. "The public perception is that Marwan can be a savior," says Elias Sabbagh, Barghouti's East Jerusalem-based attorney. The Fatah leader could be particularly effective at rallying the Aqsa Brigades, who typically take orders only from local bosses. "His symbolism is extremely important to the Palestinian street," says Barghouti's wife, Fadwa.

In the meantime, Barghouti's loyalists in the Aqsa Brigades show few signs they are genuinely ready take orders from Abbas, or take on Hamas in the West Bank. During a visit to the West Bank city of Jenin earlier this week, I found the city's godfather, Aqsa boss Zacharia Zubeidi, sitting under a carob tree, chain smoking L&Ms, and otherwise doing nothing. "I'm going to rest now," he explained. "I'm not allowed to leave. We eat, we drink. We're just like the rest of the army. We have no duties." Not exactly a promising pledge to help cleanse the West Bank of Hamas militants, as some Israelis and Americans are hoping. Despite the fact that Aqsa militants in the West Bank made an elaborate show earlier this week of turning in their Kalashnikovs and pledging to support for Abbas, Zubeidi made it clear that he still has access to his old weapons. The 31-year-old militant insists that, for his generation, the 48-year-old Barghouti is much easier to identify with than the grandfatherly Abbas. Since Barghouti has been in prison for the past five years, he's also viewed as virtually untainted by Fatah corruption. "If Marwan comes out, he'll help tremendously," Zubeidi insists. "He's able to combine the old guard and the new guard in one person."

In the near term, at least, the prospect of that happening seems slim. Barghouti's son Qassam told NEWSWEEK that an American diplomat met with his mother, Fadwa, on Thursday, but there's no evidence that the meeting portends an imminent release. (A U.S. Consulate spokesperson did not return calls this week.) Miri Eisen, a spokesperson for Olmert, says that Barghouti's freedom "is not on the table now," although she acknowledged that the issue comes up regularly at high-level meetings. Israelis are particularly concerned that, once released, Barghouti becomes a free radical, and will almost certainly return to advocating attacks on Israelis. (Barghouti's lawyer says the Fatah leader supports armed attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, but not within Israel proper.) For her part, Fadwa Barghouti is wary of any Israeli attempts to engineer Palestinian political fortunes. "The more they say they want to strengthen Fatah, the more people look down on Fatah," she complains. That, of course, is one of the problems that brought Hamas to power in the first place.