Opinion | A President in Handcuffs: Why Palestinians Should Vote for Barghouti
By Gideon Levy
Published March 31, 2021
Barghouti in court in 2012 Credit: Bernat Armangue / AP
If I were Palestinian, I’d vote for Marwan Barghouti as president of the Palestinian Authority. If I were an Israeli Zionist who insists on believing in the two-state solution, I’d also do everything I could to get Barghouti elected. And even as an Israeli who no longer believes in the two-state solution, I am dreaming, genuinely dreaming, of the moment this man finally leaves prison and become the leader of the Palestinians. He is currently the only chance to breathe new hope into the dying Palestinian people and into the corpse laying outside, the corpse of the peace process – which was never a process and also never intended to achieve peace.
There is nothing now that can stir the emotions, fire the imagination and spark hope more than imagining Barghouti being released from Hadarim Prison, just as a more-admired freedom fighter was released from South Africa’s Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990. Nelson Mandela was freed after 27 years. He, like Barghouti, was sentenced to life. He, like Barghouti, was convicted of terrorism.
But Mandela’s opposite number was the courageous Frederik Willem de Klerk. Facing off against Barghouti is nothing but Israeli incitement, stupidity and cowardice.
There’s no clearer proof of the fact that Israel never wanted to reach an agreement than its endless, idiotic imprisonment of Barghouti. Ask any member of the Shin Bet security service or any Israeli statesman well-versed in the subject and they’ll tell you that Barghouti is the last chance – the last chance to unite the Palestinians and the last chance to make peace.
Mandela was elected president of his country; Barghouti may run for the presidency of his people. Mandela did so as a free man; Barghouti will do so as a prisoner serving a grotesque, show sentence of five life terms plus an additional 40 years that, perish the thought, might never end.
I write “perish the thought” because Barghouti truly is the last chance. And it’s not that Israeli officials don’t know this. Rather, it’s precisely because they know it better than I do that he will never be released.
Nevertheless, the fantasy of this short, hyperactive man who wears a simple Casio watch, with his captivating smile and his unique Hebrew – he pronounces “kibush” (occupation) as “kivush” and “imma” (mother) with the accent on the second syllable rather than the first – being freed from prison and becoming president fires the imagination. How greatly one small step could change so much.
Twenty-four years ago this week, on Land Day in 1997, as we were driving in his car through the burning tires of the demonstrations in Ramallah, he told me, “What I fear most is that we’ll lose hope.” That moment has arrived. Only Barghouti can still save us from it.
Anyone who wants to understand what has happened to the Palestinians should look at what has happened to Barghouti. This man of peace who was turned into a man of terror is proof that the Palestinians have already tried everything.
What didn’t he try? He pounded on the doors of the Zionist parties’ central committees in the late 1990s, pleading with them to do something before it all blew up. But Israel didn’t do anything, and it all blew up.
He took his children to the Ramat Gan Safari Park, and on a wonderful, unforgettable parliamentary trip to Europe he befriended Knesset members from the Likud and Shas parties and even from the settlements. He was a fan of the Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team. And he was a man of peace, perhaps the most determined Palestinian man of peace ever.
Only when he reached the realization that nothing would budge Israel from its arrogant attitude and its worship of power did he fulfill his own prophecy that it would all blow up and join the armed struggle – just like Mandela, though the violent chapter of his struggle is now downplayed.
Barghouti has been in prison for some 20 years already. He was convicted of terror against a state whose occupation is the worst and cruelest terror between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
The last time I saw him he was wearing the brown Israel Prison Service uniform. That was in the courtroom in Tel Aviv. Now, he’s considering running in the Palestinian election, an election under occupation.
If he is elected president, it isn’t only the Palestinians who will benefit. And if he is elected president, the occupation will record another terrible new nadir in its history – not just a freedom fighter behind bars, but a president in handcuffs.
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