JERUSALEM – When the Israeli and Palestinian Authority prime ministers met Tuesday, they did so with an unprecedented display of bonhomie and some trusted ministers. But one man was missing – a man widely credited with engineering the Palestinian cease-fire that led to the meeting and generated momentum for the US-backed peace plan under discussion.
Marwan Barghouti had a good excuse for missing the carefully scripted meeting: Since April 2002, he has languished in Israeli jails Branded a “master terrorist” by Israel, hailed by others as a Palestinian Napoleon (a nod to his diminutive size and perceived ambition), Mr. Barghouti is considered a likely successor to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Barghouti’s ability to organize a cease-fire from a prison cell when Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas was failing to do so is testament to his credibility among Palestinians of all factions.
“It is quite extraordinary,” says Israeli analyst Yossi Alpher. “This [cease-fire] strengthens his position as a potential successor, assuming in the course of some prisoner exchange he is released.”
On Wednesday, the US signaled its approval of Mr. Abbas’s efforts by announcing $30 million in aid Wednesday. Also Wednesday, Israeli troops pulled out of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, a condition of the “road map” peace plan under which Israel must reduce troop presence in the territories to September 2000 levels.
Palestinian obligations include maintaining the cease-fire. For some, Barghouti’s role in this cease-fire raises questions as to whether Israel, despite its official rhetoric, is working to bolster his image in the hope of promoting new Palestinian leadership.
Barghouti reportedly communicated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Syria and Lebanon via letter and through envoys.
Yossi Sarid, leader of the leftist Israeli political party Meretz, suggested to the media that “it is a sort of a coordination between the Israeli government and Barghouti in order to … strengthen his position.”
Barghouti’s relative youth (he is 44), street credibility, and reputation for honesty make him second only to Arafat in popularity among Palestinians.
Those qualities, in addition to his fluent Hebrew and the fact that he is not an Islamist, also make Barghouti attractive to Israeli officials looking for future interlocutors.
While these traits make Bar ghouti a threat to the old guard Palestinian leadership, for now they need him. “This government hasn’t any minister who has the influence in the West Bank that Marwan has,” says Hafez Bar ghouti, a distant relation and editor of Jerusalem’s Al Hayat al Jedidah newspaper. “He can deliver.”
So it is likely that Barghouti’s name was high on the list at the Tuesday meeting, where Abbas made prisoner release a priority.
After their public remarks, which were broadcast live, the two leaders met privately to discuss joint committees to deal with security, humanitarian aid and other issues.
Abbas also asked that Arafat, confined to his Ramallah compound for over a year now, be allowed to leave. Sharon, who has worked with the US to marginalize the PA president, said he would consider allowing the aging leader to move to Gaza, adding, according to the Israeli press, “as long as he stays there.”