The lesser of two evils

Freeing Marwan Barghouti now as opposed to later.

barghouti in handcuffs88 (photo credit: )
barghouti in handcuffs88
(photo credit: )
Only in the Middle East can you find a terrorist convicted of five counts of murder courted by Israelis and Palestinians alike. Marwan Barghouti has been in the center of a storm brewing behind the scenes for quite some time. The imprisoned Fatah leader and former head of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades is currently a Palestinian parliamentarian. From his jail cell, he has negotiated cease-fires among Palestinians and with Israelis, and is quietly visited by both Jews and Arabs. When Silvan Shalom was foreign minister, he once stated, "It is out of the question to free an assassin [Barghouti] who has blood on his hands..." His comment was reminiscent of past Israeli declarations that Samir Kuntar would never be released. The problem with these statements is that they are more wishful thinking than strategic thinking. The truth is, Israel has released murderers in the past and will continue to do so in the future, not because it wants to but because it feels it must. MARWAN BARGHOUTI is a rising star among the Palestinians and his popularity is unquestionable. As someone who has fought against Israel and spoken up against corruption in Fatah, he has both the credibility to take on Hamas and the legitimacy to negotiate with Israel. Whether or not this justifies his release from prison is not the real issue though. The truth of the matter is that sooner rather than later Barghouti will likely be released from prison - the only question is who will get the credit. Barghouti is high on Hamas's list of prisoners that it wants to see released in exchange for Gilad Schalit. Recognizing the dangers of Hamas claiming responsibility for his release, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently requested that he be handed over to him as part of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's "goodwill gesture." With his term in office soon coming to an end, Abbas will need all the political support he can get to keep power. A boost from the Israeli government would be a good start; it would show the Palestinians that negotiations, rather than force, yield the better results. Today's situation is reminiscent of that prior to Israel's exit from Gaza in 2005, when many pleaded with the Sharon government to hand the territory over to Abbas as part of a negotiated agreement. Sharon instead chose to withdraw unilaterally, which greatly assisted Hamas efforts to show that it had "forced" Israel out through its campaign of terror. It was not long before it wrested full control of Gaza. Today Israel faces a similar dilemma. The Olmert government would be wise to learn from past mistakes. If it continues to insist that it will never release Barghouti, he will end up being freed at a later date as part of a prisoner exchange with Hamas. Israel will have lost the opportunity to help the more moderate Palestinian camp, and the country will have ultimately weakened its position in the eyes of the Arab world and a new US administration. In a perfect world, Barghouti would rot in jail and the need to advocate for his release would be a non-issue. But this is the Middle East, and in this part of the world one plays by different rules. If Israel is ultimately going to release Barghouti - and it increasingly appears it will - it needs to go with the lesser of two evils and free him into the custody of Abbas now, so that it doesn't have to hand him over to Hamas later. The writer is an international security associate at Harvard University's Belfer Center and a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.