Mideast: Looking for a Leader

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet and a former defense minister, likes to say that he had the "privilege" of arresting Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti twice. In 2002, thanks to Ben-Eliezer, Barghouti was sentenced to five life sentences for the murders of four Israelis and a Greek monk committed under his command, and today he sits in Israel's Hadarim prison. But now Ben-Eliezer says he wants Barghouti released. More than that, he'd like to see Barghouti sitting across the bargaining table, representing the Palestinians in peace talks. Ben-Eliezer, who is Israel's minister of infrastructure, says the current Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have so little credibility with the Palestinian people that neither can negotiate final-status issues by themselves or impose the kind of security that Israel will require before it agrees to a Palestinian state. "I don't think they can deliver the goods. He can," Ben-Eliezer told NEWSWEEK, adding that Barghouti "is not a radical guy."

While calls to release Barghouti are not new, Ben-Eliezer's is a minority view in the government. Nonetheless, the fact that a current cabinet member—and an avowed hawk who as defense minister during the second intifada advocated a policy of assassination—is calling publicly for the release of a convicted killer is evidence of how little faith Israelis have any longer in the Annapolis peace process. (Rumors have also been floated in recent weeks that Olmert might consider Barghouti's release, along with that of other Palestinian prisoners, in exchange for Gilad Schalit, the Israeli corporal captured in 2006 by Hamas.)

The sense of despair has only grown as a dramatic escalation of violence has eclipsed the meager U.S.-orchestrated peace efforts. An increase in rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza provoked an Israeli incursion that led Abbas to suspend peace talks. Then, on Thursday, as many as eight rabbinical students were shot to death at a yeshiva outside Jerusalem in the most serious attack in two years, and an Israeli soldier was killed by a rare Palestinian improvised explosive device. Many Israelis believe that Abbas, who is not a military man, doesn't have the stature to stand up an army that can counter Hamas, which is rearming and reorganizing on a model set by Hizbullah in neighboring Lebanon. These critics say that only the popular Barghouti, who once headed the Tanzim—a militant wing of Yasir Arafat's Fatah nationalist movement—can give the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank the military muscle it needs. For the record, Ben-Eliezer wants the Annapolis talks to continue (good thing, since his prime minister has endorsed them). But he, like most Israelis, realizes that Abbas controls too few guns against Hamas, which has created a small  quasi-terror state in Gaza. Barghouti, Ben-Eliezer says, "may be the only guy that is respected by Hamas."

Some experts counter that Palestinian disunity is so great that even someone of Barghouti's stature would no longer be able to build bridges between Hamas and Fatah. "I think a couple of years ago there might have been a compelling case for [Barghouti's release], but the Palestinian polity is now facing its most fundamental crisis ever. It lacks a truly national leader," says Aaron David Miller, former U.S. Middle East negotiator and author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace." Things are further complicated by the divisions within Hamas itself, which are thwarting Egyptian efforts to negotiate a truce with the Israelis. The group's hardline military wing, led by Mahmoud Zahar, may be at odds with former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya and with Khaled Meshal, who heads Hamas's Damascus office. "I don't think there is any single individual who can heal the rifts," says Miller. Others, however, like former U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross, think that Barghouti is "authentically a national figure."

Ben-Eliezer, who was once military coordinator for the Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank and Gaza, has long been pushing for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. The 41-year-old occupation, which dates from the Six Day War, he says, "didn't help us from a security point of view … The occupation has worked very badly." And the longer Israel waits to negotiate now, he says, the more insecure it will become as a Jewish state, with higher birthrates producing Palestinians and Israeli Arabs equal to the number of Israelis. Ben-Eliezer says that Israelis should not regret their unilateral withdrawals from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005—just the way those moves were made. "The lesson that should be learned," he says, "is that disengagement is good, but you have to deliver the area to someone who can take responsibility." Is there any Palestinian leader capable of doing that any longer?