Yossi Beilin recently wrote an interesting column in the Forward in which he called for the immediate release of Marwan Barghouti from Israeli prison. Barghouti is perhaps the most celebrated and popular Palestinian leader today and his acclaim among his people only increases with each passing day he spends behind bars. A bit of background: in 2002, Israeli operatives kidnapped Barghouti from the Palestinian street, spirited him off to Israel and tried him as the architect of the 2000 Intifada.
Beilin, himself a former Justice Minister, is ambivalent on the question of how directly culpable Barghouti is (was he the intellectual author of the violence or did he indeed leave his fingerprints on specific acts of terror?). He makes the following conflicting statements:
From the moment he was arrested and brought to trial, the judges had no choice but to convict him. The evidence that he was responsible for directing terrorist acts was overwhelming
And then he says:
Barghouti is no saint, and there is every reason to argue that he is responsible, if only indirectly, for the murder of innocent people.
Beilin prudently argues that in order to achieve peace, we have to set aside issues of guilt or innocence in the interest of the greater good of finally and fully resolving the conflict. He recognizes, as do we all, that Abbas and the PA have neither the will nor the power necessary to neutralize Islamic Jihad or Hamas (should it return to the path of terror). Only a figure such as Barghouti, the Malcolm X AND DeGaulle of his people, can neutralize whatever reservoir of authenticity that attaches to these militant groups.
That Barghouti will be freed is a virtual certainty according to Beilin:
Barghouti will be released. It almost certainly will take place as part of a permanent-status agreement. It could come about as part of a prisoner swap with an organization like Hezbollah.
If the latter is the case, then it would be preferable to do it now. Once Barghouti is free, he will be able to join Abbas and help him to lead the areas under P.A. control. If Israel is interested in a strong Palestinian partner that is capable of administering law and order and of standing up to Hamas, this is Israel’s opportunity.
Barghouti is no saint…[but] almost all conflicts similar to ours come to an end when those responsible for instigating the violence sign an agreement.
And when someone asks us — as they inevitably will after we release Barghouti — how we can look the orphans and the widows in the eye, we will tell him that our job is to prevent future orphans and widows.
Does Israel want to face an endless series of terror attacks like the one in Netanyahu this week? Or is it willing to take a risk that might lead to a serious and lasting breakthrough in the struggle for peace? Condi Rice, a few weeks ago, weighed in on a difficult and contentious matter that blocked agreement between Israel and the Palestinians on the Rafah border crossing. It behooves her to get involved with this issue as well. The U.S. could broker Barghouti’s release if it wanted to. If it chooses not to I’d ask–do you have a better alternative–because the current options aren’t working.