Analysis: Marwan Barghouti - A Nelson Mandela or a PR gimmick?

Analysis Marwan Barghou

It's not clear at this stage whether top Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, who is serving five life sentences in prison for masterminding a series of terror attacks on Israel, would be part of a prisoner exchange agreement between Hamas and Israel. But what is clear is that Barghouti, 50, is already planning, from his prison cell, how to succeed Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority. Barghouti himself made it clear in a newspaper interview published on Wednesday that he intends to run in a new presidential election. Earlier this week, his wife, Fadwa, also stated that her husband has his eyes set on the PA presidency. Barghouti has been in prison since 2002 and there's a feeling that the PA leadership and many Fatah officials would prefer to see him remain behind bars. Recent public opinion polls suggesting that Barghouti was the Palestinians' favorite choice for the job of PA president may be inaccurate or baseless. Nonetheless, these polls have left many PA and Fatah representatives worried. Old guard officials like Abbas are worried because Barghouti represents a young generation of disgruntled Palestinians eager for regime change. This is a generation that has long been struggling for a larger role in the decision-making process, but to no avail. Yasser Arafat and his old-time colleagues who returned with him to the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the signing of the Oslo Accords prevented the young guard representatives from rising to power. Abbas, who succeeded Arafat in January 2005, endorsed his predecessor's policy, keeping the young leaders away from bases of power in Fatah, the PLO and the PA. Barghouti was one of the few Fatah operatives who dared to speak out against the policy of "marginalizing" him and the young guard, grassroots figures in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. He was also one of the few Palestinians who openly criticized rampant financial corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Some of Barghouti's supporters in Fatah are convinced that senior officials in Arafat's office had tipped-off the Israelis about his hiding place. Yet Barghouti is also seen as a threat by some leading young guard representatives in Fatah like Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, the two former security commanders who served under Arafat. Both Dahlan and Rajoub also see themselves as suitable candidates to succeed Abbas. The release of Barghouti or, alternately, a decision by him to run in a new election is therefore likely to aggravate tensions in the ruling Fatah faction. Barghouti is said to have close ties with the Hamas leadership, both in the Gaza Strip and Syria. Over the past two years, Barghouti has come out in support of unity between Fatah and Hamas. His release would not only undermine the status of the current Fatah and PA leaders, but it could also expedite the process of reconciliation between his faction and Hamas. Some Palestinians, however, remain skeptical regarding Barghouti's chances of winning in a presidential election. They point out that Barghouti was at the head of the Fatah list that lost to Hamas in the January 2005 legislative election. Unlike many in the Western media, Palestinian journalists and writers have rarely - if ever - referred to Barghouti as a "charismatic" leader or as the "Palestinian Nelson Mandela." Cynics and conspiracy theorists in the Palestinian territories go further by arguing that Barghouti is actually part of a US-Israeli scheme aimed at turning him into the next leader of the Palestinians. To back up their argument, they ask simple questions such as: Since when does Israel allow a security prisoner to give media interviews or hold meetings with Israeli, Palestinian, European and American officials in his prison cell? Undoubtedly, Barghouti is respected by many Palestinians. Yet, this is not because he's the Palestinian Nelson Mandela or Salah Eddin - the Muslim warrior who drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem - but because he's sitting in Israeli jail. Barghouti is respected by many in Fatah, but his popularity among the faction's cadres is surely not as enormous as it's being portrayed by many Western journalists. Dahlan and Rajoub are believed to enjoy much more support among Fatah members and supporters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Some Fatah operatives have even complained that the public opinion polls that have been predicting a sweeping victory for Barghouti were part of an EU-funded campaign designed to bolster his image among Palestinians as their only hope for the future.