Is Marwan Barghouti right to run?

Marwan Barghouti in an Israeli court, 3 April 2003. (Photo: BAUBAU/SIPA)

Marwan Barghouti, the Palestinian resistance leader imprisoned by Israel, has caused an uproar by reversing his earlier decision not to run for president of the Palestinian Authority.

Barghouti may not be able to run on the Fatah ticket after the movement picked Mahmoud Abbas as its sole candidate in an opaque process. However, Barghouti has the right to run as an individual and as one of a handful of Palestinians widely-known enough in the occupied territories to make the election a serious contest, his candidacy can only benefit democracy. He must obviously be aware that he may be breaking Fatah rules, and he must be equally prepared to face the consequences. If there is any validity to the claim that the Palestinian Authority intends to run democratic elections then everyone ought to welcome Barghouti’s candidacy.

Unfortunately, though, Barghouti’s candidacy has provoked some very negative reactions that cast serious doubt on the sincerity of those who have long been calling on the Palestinians to speed up democratization and reform as a way to advance the peace process. These attitudes indicate that many of those calls were simply a cover for inaction and fear of confronting the true obstacle to regional peace: Israel.

Hatem Abdul Qader, a Palestinian official, was quoted saying that “we would do our utmost to persuade Barghouthi to withdraw his candidacy to avoid a split in Fatah.” Another, Al Tayyeb Abdul Rahim, described Barghouthi’s candidacy as “an irresponsible step, odd, difficult to understand and stands contrary to Fatah traditions of exercising unity.” Even President Mubarak of Egypt chimed in, claiming that “Barghouti’s decision to run has damaged Palestinian unity.” He added that the candidacy will split Palestinians at a time when there “should be one voice and no differences at a time when we need to stay clear of differences.”

The American people were “split” into almost two equal halves in the latest presidential elections, and we did not hear anyone blaming the candidates for splitting the American people at a time when America badly needs “one voice.” Most democratic elections split people sometimes to the extent that winners secure their victory by a fraction of one percent of the vote, but they win and their countries stay in one piece. Sometimes elections produce unsatisfying results, offering no clear mandate to any of the competing parties. This is the basic nature of democracy and such problems are not reasons for abandoning it. The whole point is to provide a way to manage differences not eliminate them.

The Palestinians have two options. The first is a free and fair election that provides a geniune choice and in which the people, and no one else, decide the outcome. Palestinians are fortunate that with Marwan Barghouti, Mustafa Barghouti (a highly-respected leader and Marwan’s distant cousin, who represents the opposition Palestinian National Initiative), as well as several others, all candidates, there could be a real contest. A fair election requires the PA not to misuse its apparatus to unfairly skew the election, and that Israel not interfere.

The second option is to put empty slogans about “Palestinian unity,” or even “Fatah unity” before the interests of the Palestinian people at a time when those interests are under unprecedented threat.

It is obvious that all the calls for “unity,” as well as Palestinian officials’ anger at Barghouthi’s decision are no more than a veil to disguise a pre-planned deal to have Mahmoud Abbas succeed Yasser Arafat. That seems to be the most convenient arrangement to protect the interests of the Oslo party, as well as the peace process operators who naively or opportunistically believe that the selection of Abbas will open the way for a settlement, albeit on Israeli terms. It also suits Israel, which expects Abbas to end the Intifada unconditionally and further lower the ceiling of Palestinian demands. While the Israelis would take that as an enormous additional gain they would also never allow any movement beyond that point towards actual peace based on a just resolution to the conflict.

So why bother with all this talk about democracy and elections? Fatah has already chosen Mahmoud Abbas. The international peace process industry has already declared that Abbas is the right “moderate” to lead the Palestinians. Fatah, as the “ruling party” in the Palestinian non-state acts as if it has the final word and should not be challenged. We have already heard sarcastic remarks about a 99.9 percent vote result for Abbas addressed to one PA official. But long-time PA official Yasser Abed Rabbo denied that this figure was the target. “Something around eighty percent would be sufficient,” he told the BBC Arabic Service.

Actually, only in the worst dictatorships does the “unity” candidate who is the “one voice” of the nation win with 99 percent of the vote. Saddam Hussein claimed to have won his last presidential election by such a majority, as have a number of other Arab leaders, including those who offer Palestinians their advice.

Is this the model the PA wants to follow and is it on such grounds that it deserved so much support and Marwan Barghouthi so much condemnation?

As the West Bank head of the Fatah organization, Barghouti’s association with strong arm tactics during the Oslo period undermined his popular support from middle class Palestinians, but recent polls show him running ahead of Abbas, an indication that his active leadership in the resistance gained him widespread grassroots credibility that few other Palestinian figures can match. Some Palestinians, who might not support Barghouti if he were free, see great symbolism in a potential victory for him when he is behind Israeli bars. For Israel, Barghouti is the head of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a resistance organization that switched to suicide attacks inside Israel following Israel’s assassination of regional leader Raed Karmi in January 2001, though Israel has never been able to prove Barghouti’s personal involvement in such attacks which escalated in the months after his capture.

It is viciously hypocritical to call for Palestinian democracy and then seek to deny the people the right to choose the person they see fit to lead them. Let the Palestinians in the occupied territories decide whether they see Barghouthi as one of their national heroes who struggled bravely against the occupation and never feared the personal consequences or whether they consider him no more than an “irresponsible” spoiler of Fatah’s sacred unity.

What indeed is irresponsible, odd and difficult to understand is for any Palestinian to be treated in this cruel manner not by his Israeli persecutors but by his own comrades. Marwan Barghouti is castigated not when he lives among his comrades but when he is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for “crimes” he ostensibly committed defending his people and land while others were basking in the privileges, false prestige and wealth they traded for the rights and dignity of their people.

Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. Ali Abunimah is co-founder of the The Electronic Intifada and Electronic Iraq

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