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Analysis

Barghouti calls for Palestinian leadership primaries as heat turns up for Israel

Terrorist jailed by Israel for murder challenges Abbas; if he wins, it could put the Jewish state in a serious bind

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian man casts a ballot during elections for the Fatah movment in the Nablus area, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus, January 23, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
A Palestinian man casts a ballot during elections for the Fatah movment in the Nablus area, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus, January 23, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

On Tuesday night, the Palestinian Central Elections Committee finished registering voters.

The Palestinians showed impressive public compliance with the committee’s efforts, with 93 percent of potential voters registered. An especially high amount of activity was noted among Hamas activists in the West Bank and Gaza, who were out on the streets encouraging potential voters to register, hoping to translate early interest into votes.

Fatah activists also took up the call, but just like in 2006, during the last Palestinian elections, the color green representing Hamas was displayed much more prominently than Fatah’s yellow.

That’s not the only way the campaign resembles 2006: Now, as then, Fatah is divided — with early glimmers of breakoff factions emerging within the secular Palestinian movement — while Hamas is united. If they were to compete against each other, the damage to Fatah would be enormous, with Hamas directly pocketing the profits.

The person who seems, at least for now, to be the key player in the upcoming elections, according to the many surveys being conducted in the West Bank and Gaza, is Israel’s most notorious political-security prisoner, Marwan Barghouti.

Marwan Barghouti, file photo (Flash90)

Barghouti, a convicted terrorist, will decide if Fatah will run as a unified faction or if some Fatah candidates will compete with the “official” list, and possibly even splinter off into several factions within the movement.

In late 2005, several weeks before the 2006 parliamentary elections, Barghouti decided that he and his supporters would run for parliament separately, against the Fatah list. Barghouti’s list was named Al-Mostakbal, The Future.

Various sources pressured Barghouti to shelve the idea of a separate list, which he had raised to contend with corruption and nepotism within the Palestinian Authority. Barghouti finally caved to the pressure and did not run separately, yet the damage had been already been done. Fatah was viewed as a fractious movement, rife with division and corruption.

“The problem is that that view has not changed much,” said Dr. Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The Palestinian public sees the divisions and factions within the movement and it looks like nothing has changed.”

Will Barghouti go all the way?

PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced in mid-January that Palestinians would be returning to the polls, the first in 15 years. He issued an electoral decree setting three rounds of elections, with the first — legislative elections — scheduled for May 22. The statement was greeted with heavy skepticism, as numerous electoral promises have fallen through before.

Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections led to a split between Fatah and the Islamist terror group. The two rival Palestinian movements fought a bloody struggle for supremacy in Gaza, ending in the Fatah leadership’s expulsion to the West Bank.

Ahead of the 2021 vote, Barghouti’s associates are taking steps that indicate his intention of running for president, possibly on a separate list.

Palestinians arrive to cast their ballot during the elections for the Fatah movment in the Nablus area, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus, January 23, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

This group, which had once headed Fatah’s Tanzim militant wing, later found itself excluded and booted out of various government institutions. The PA president repeatedly made sure they were removed from decision-making positions. And from the sidelines, they watched as those close to Abbas, however corrupt, gained power and money. By retaining power in any way possible, the officials who profited from the corruption pushed the Palestinian public away from Fatah and into the arms of Hamas.

This is what triggered Barghouti’s desire to assert independence and negotiate with Abbas and his backers — this time from a position of power, given his popularity. The PA, meanwhile, has made every effort to keep Barghouti behind bars, with Abbas’ circle conveying messages to that effect to the Israeli side.

Barghouti was sentenced to five life sentences for five murders of Israelis. He is destined to die in prison unless released.

Barghouti, also known as Abu Qassam, views himself as no less than the Palestinian Nelson Mandela. In his view, the presidential elections — which he is expected to win according to every poll — will pave his way out of prison through heavy international pressure that will be brought to bear on Israel. That scenario may seem inconceivable to many Israelis right now, especially those who refuse to acknowledge the change in government in Washington.

But if that actually does end up being the result of the election, then such pressure will be applied, big time.

Competing against Barghouti for the title of PA president is no other than the current president, Mahmoud Abbas. He may be 86, but senior officials who met with him recently said he is healthy and up for the task.

While a slew of Palestinian officials under him (including Majed Faraj, Hussein al-Sheikh, Jibril Rajoub, and others) all suffer from various health issues, Abbas seems as sprightly as ever. Yet even Abbas realizes that if he runs against Barghouti, his chances are poor.

In this October 20, 2012, photo, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during local elections at a polling station in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Possibly for this reason, Hussein al-Sheikh, Abbas’ representative, was sent to Hadarim prison, where Barghouti is jailed, in central Israel this week.

The decision to send al-Sheikh was bizarre. This is the man who was Barghouti’s primary adversary within Fatah during the turbulent summer months of 2000, just before the Second Intifada broke out.

The rivalry between the two helped galvanize the intifada and the many terror attacks perpetrated by Fatah. This rivalry caused their protégés, the Tanzim fighters and al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, to carry out as many terror attacks as possible against Israel in order to drum up political support and especially funds from then-PA president Yasser Arafat.

Their rivalry took a surreal turn when Barghouti decided during one of the winter months at the end of 2000 to halt the shooting from within the populated Ramallah neighborhoods at Israeli settlements. This was in reaction to complaints of nearby Psagot residents that the IDF’s retaliatory fire was causing them great damage. Barghouti’s men stopped their shooting at the appointed hour only to find that at the exact same time al-Sheikh’s men had begun shooting at Psagot, mainly to violate Barghouti’s ceasefire.

The hostility came to a head in the struggle for leadership of Fatah’s Central Committee in the West Bank (the Tanzim), which seemingly ended in al-Sheikh’s victory. However, this was a phony victory backed by Arafat, who wanted to weaken young Barghouti’s position in any way possible. Eventually, it backfired and Barghouti became the symbol of the Second Intifada while al-Sheikh became a symbol of corruption and collaboration with Israel.

Hussein al-Sheikh, a close confidant of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, speaking on Palestine TV, the official PA channel. (Screenshot: Palestine TV)

So when al-Sheikh was sent to the prison to meet Barghouti, many eyebrows were raised in Ramallah. Still, according to sources close to Barghouti, during the meeting, Barghouti made clear to al-Sheikh that he is not interested in splitting Fatah or sparking any intra-movement conflict. However, he also clarified that he would not put up with appointments of cronies or relatives of senior party officials as Fatah candidates for parliament.

Ahead of the election, Abbas has decided that five different Fatah committees will be set up, three in the West Bank and two in Gaza. Each will be headed by three members of Fatah’s Central Committee, the most senior level in the movement, and 10 or 15 members of the Revolutionary Council. The committees will determine the movement’s list of candidates for parliament, which will then be brought before the Revolutionary Council and the Central Committee for approval. Barghouti is concerned that this format will pave the way for nepotism in parliament, while the leaders who are popular and supported by the Palestinian public will not be allowed to run.

As a result, his stand was unequivocal: Barghouti’s faction demanded primary elections. If these are actually held, then according to Barghouti, he will be willing to accept their results, “whatever they may be.”

He said that if Abbas comes in first place, Barghouti will remove his candidacy for the presidency. But if any attempt is made to manipulate the results, as has happened more than once in recent Fatah General Conferences, then Barghouti will not accept them.

Palestinian Central Election Commission workers register citizens in preparation for elections, in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 10, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel’s dilemma

The elections for the Palestinian parliament and presidency — the latter set for July — put Israel’s government in a difficult position. With every passing day, a scenario that was unimaginable a few short weeks ago is becoming increasingly likely.

Fatah and Hamas faced numerous obstacles on the path to an agreement regarding elections — some of which still exist — yet it seems that, at least for now, both sides have been able to move past their differences. They seem to be going full steam ahead to elections to parliament and presidency, and then to the PLO’s National Council.

Supposedly, Israel’s preference is for Fatah, as representative of the PA, to win the elections in May and for current president Abbas to achieve a landslide victory in the presidential elections.

The situation is more complex, however. It seems that Israel, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, is more afraid of Abbas than of Hamas, and is not interested in a strong Palestinian Authority, capable of representing all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has taken quite a few steps in recent years to perpetuate Hamas’ rule in Gaza and to weaken Abbas’ rule, to prevent any possibility of discussion over a two-state plan. The logic of the current right-wing government is that as long as the split between Fatah and Hamas exists, the two-state solution continues to be viewed as somewhere between a fantasy and an illusion.

Palestinian members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terrorist movement, during a patrol in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 27, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

However, even the second possibility, which also seems likely these days, of a Hamas win in the parliamentary elections is not expected to serve Israel’s interests. What exactly can Israel do if the next Palestinian government is staffed with Hamas senior officials? How do you work with such a government?

Will Israel allow it?

Although Israel has already gained such experience following the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections, a Hamas victory in 2021 can still be expected to cause a fair share of embarrassment in Israel. It will also result in quite a lot of interest in Hamas among the international community, Europe, and possibly even among the more liberal circles of the Biden administration. Those same people in the Obama administration who supported dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during the 2011 Arab Spring, can be expected to support dialogue with terrorist organization Hamas if it wins the elections.

There is always the possibility that Israel will stop the elections, but even that will not help. During the Trump administration, the Israeli government sent a clear message to the PA that it would not allow elections if Hamas participated. But that was during the Trump era. Now the message coming from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is unclear.

The possibility of holding democratic elections in Gaza and the West Bank is not being ruled out outright, but there is also no clear statement that Israel will allow them. The statement heard by the mediators on the issue is that the government’s final position on this will be determined only after elections are held in Israel next month and a new Israeli government is formed.

One thing that is already pretty clear is that elections in East Jerusalem will not be acceptable to Israel. In the past, the Palestinians used this excuse to cancel the elections. Now their approach seems to be that any East Jerusalem resident with voting rights can vote freely at one of the ballot boxes that will be set up throughout West Bank cities. Alternatively, they can vote in any of the villages surrounding Jerusalem in Area B areas such as al-Ram, al-Azariya, Abu Dis and others. These places already have a Palestinian police presence, so it seems that Israel will not object to ballot boxes there.

The EU and the US may still apply strong pressure on Israel to allow voting at post offices in East Jerusalem, as took place in the 1996 and 2006 elections. Strong political pressure by the Bush administration in 2005 on then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, just before he sank into a coma, caused the former Israeli leader to agree to allow elections in East Jerusalem.

The results, lest we forget, were no less than tragic for the PA and Fatah as Hamas achieved a victory and later violently wrested control of Gaza from Fatah. The outcome was also tragic for those in Israel who had believed in peace with the Palestinians.

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