A Palestinian Mandela and an Israeli de Klerk

Interesting comparison can be made between players in the local scene and these historical figures.

A Palestinian protester burns a replica Israeli flag as another holds a Palestinian flag during clashes with the Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah October 18, 2015. (photo credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/REUTERS)
A Palestinian protester burns a replica Israeli flag as another holds a Palestinian flag during clashes with the Israeli troops near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah October 18, 2015.
I met Marwan Barghouthi in the early 1990s during the first intifada. It was very clear that he was a leader. He was then one of the Fatah youth who was not only leading the Palestinian uprising, it was clear that he was one of the people shaping Palestinian public opinion that would lead to a peace process.
In the mid 1990s Marwan led a group of Fatah people who participated in weekend meetings that I led and organized as the founder and co-director of IPCRI-Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, held in Turkey, alongside of groups of Israeli leaders, first mostly from the Labor Party and then after 1996 from the Likud.
I vividly remember the first meeting we held after Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 victory, in Ramallah, together with the Fatah Tanzim led by Barghouthi and on the Israeli side by Gideon Ezra, the former deputy head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and a new member of Knesset. In the evening we led the group of Likud MKs to Ramallah, who all agreed to participate after Gideon Ezra said that he wouldn’t miss the opportunity. As we entered the passageway into a large complex of buildings in Ramallah where Barghouthi’s office of the Tanzim was located, Ezra commented, “We spent years looking for this office and we never found it.”
We spent more than 200 hours in deep discussions about every aspect of Israeli Palestinian peace in those meetings. We kept word-for-word transcripts of the discussions. Many of the talks were very tough and arguments were often very loud, but usually we found agreements or at least the basis to continue to search together for suitable solutions that would meet the needs, interests and aspirations of most of the people around the table.
What impressed most of the Israelis about Marwan was his principled positions and the sense of integrity that he demonstrated. There was a clear commitment and desire on his part to make peace with Israel, but not under all conditions. He had his demands concerning ending the occupation, sharing Jerusalem, finding agreeable solutions to the refugee issues and providing security to his people. He was most definitely not a quisling.
When the Second Intifada broke out and it was clear that Marwan and the Fatah Tanzim were among its leaders, I made contact with him while he was underground to try to understand if he had changed his positions regarding peace between the two peoples. I asked him if I could publish texts quoting him talking about peace during the course of our many working group meetings.
He told me that he had not changed his positions but that Israel refused to continue the peace process and was using massive force of live ammunition against his people and he could not sit by and act as if nothing had changed. He did not give me permission to publish his words. This was before Fatah initiated attacks inside of the Green Line. Marwan told me that if Israel entered the Palestinian cities and attacked the Palestinian controlled areas, Fatah would view it as legitimate to attack Israel inside of Israel and not just in the West Bank and Gaza.
I told him it would be a grave mistake, not only because, as he understood, there was no military solution, but also because the message that he would be sending would be that the conflict is not about the occupation of the territories in 1967 but about Israel’s very existence. He responded that the decision would be made by what Israel would do.
MARWAN WAS caught by Israel in 2002. He was tried and sentenced to five lifetime sentences plus 40 years. Marwan refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court. He provided no defense. In a long statement he read prior to his sentencing, he indicted the State of Israel for crimes against the Palestinian people, for failing to implement its commitments in the peace process, including failing to withdraw from the occupied territories, and for building illegal settlements. He claimed that he was an elected representative of his people and that he did not kill anyone.
In 2005, after the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority conducted elections for president. Marwan Barghouthi announced his intention to run for president from prison. He was already then being called the Palestinian Mandela.
I wrote a letter to Marwan which was published on December 13, 2004, in The New York Times. I wrote, “I am writing to you on my own behalf to ask you to reconsider your candidacy for the position of president of the Palestinian Authority. I have no doubts in my mind that your turn will come in the future; but it is not the right time now. I imagine it is extremely difficult to be behind bars, I can’t even imagine what your daily life is like in prison, and I know how anxious you must be to get released, to return to your home and your family and to lead the Palestinian people to peace.... You will not be forgotten, and your time will come.... Yes, there is a possibility that you could win the elections now – that is what the latest polls are suggesting. But what would happen if you did win? Would the region move into a political process that will bring real political achievements to the Palestinians? Will we enjoy a period of calm, stability and economic growth? Or will we return to extreme violence, more des
truction and more losses of innocent Palestinians and Israelis? I believe it will be the latter.”
The young generation in Palestine does not know Marwan. The current leadership in Israel also does not know him, nor did they participate in meetings with him before the Second Intifada. Nelson Mandela was not known to the young generation of South Africans before the end of apartheid.
The common thread between Mandela and Barghouthi, other than both being in prison for many years, both convicted of terrorism, is that both of these men were (regarding Mandela) and are (regarding Barghouthi) perceived by their publics of having the ability to create unity among their divided political houses.
Former South African president F.W. de Klerk was wise enough to understand the power and leadership that Mandela represented for his people, and engaged in peace talks with Mandela while he was in prison. Barghouthi has been in prison for 17 years. During his first years several Israeli politicians met with him in prison, including former defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and former MK Haim Oron. They both supported the idea of releasing Barghouthi in order to negotiate with him.
I can imagine a scenario where Benny Gantz as prime minister would engage in talks with Barghouthi while he is in prison. It is a pity that these talks have not taken place until now. Barghouthi is likely to run for Palestinian president when the next Palestinian presidential elections take place. That could happen in the not too distant future, given Mahmoud Abbas’s age and health. Palestinian polls point to a clear victory for Barghouthi if he decides and is allowed to run.
If that happens, Israel will come under extreme pressure from the world to recognize the will of the Palestinian people who made their decision in democratic elections. Barghouthi is a patriotic Palestinian leader and he is someone who supported peace with Israel and recognizing Israel’s right to exist. It would be wise to begin engaging him in prison as a legitimate leader of his people.
We Israelis and Palestinians need a Mandela and a de Klerk.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.