Who is the future of Palestinian leadership? - opinion

The overwhelming majority of Palestinians have lost confidence in the leadership, and believe that President Mahmoud Abbas should step down immediately.

MARWAN BARGHOUTI is escorted in handcuffs by police into Jerusalem Magistrates Court in 2012. (photo credit: FLASH90)
MARWAN BARGHOUTI is escorted in handcuffs by police into Jerusalem Magistrates Court in 2012.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

This column is directed first and foremost to Israel’s national security leadership.

The highest-ranking security officials in Israel are supposed to see the whole picture, think strategically and look beyond the immediate political concerns of the people in power. Security officials are supposed to gather raw intelligence and analyze it in a way that provides decision-makers with policy alternatives. The security officials should have a carte blanche to examine every option and possibility, and to identify opportunities for a more secure future for the country.

It should be quite clear that the current Palestinian leadership in the West Bank is nearing the end of its rule. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians have lost confidence in the leadership, and believe that President Mahmoud Abbas should step down immediately. Most Palestinians want and fear elections at the same time. A large part of Palestinian society does not believe that new elections would be free and fair.

No one has any idea of what will happen on the day that Abbas is no longer the president. There are serious and strong contesters for taking over the day after. There may even be political bodies that will claim that the succession needs to be decided by them. Those bodies include the Executive Committee of the PLO, the Central Committee of Fatah, and the members of the defunct Palestinian Legislative Council. It seems that any decision taken by those bodies will not be easily accepted and seen as legitimate.

Additionally, the divided Palestinian political house between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza has been unbridgeable, despite many attempts and unimplemented agreements over the past 14 years. The canceling of the scheduled election for the Palestinian Legislative Council by Abbas, which was supposed to be held in May, and the presidential election, which was supposed to be several months later but was also canceled, together with the war in May between Israel and Gaza led to an immediate rapid increase in the popularity of Hamas in the West Bank and in Gaza.

 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not pictured), in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2021. (credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL VIA REUTERS) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not pictured), in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2021. (credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL VIA REUTERS)

This should not be interpreted as an increase in support for the political and religious ideology of Hamas. It does clearly indicate though, the increasing dissatisfaction with the Palestinian Authority and all of those connected with its leadership.

Next month there are supposed to be the first round of municipal elections in the West Bank. The last time those elections were held they went by barely noticed by the Palestinian public. What has been reported to me by many Palestinian friends is an awakening of interest all around the West Bank – some believe that this is a reflection of the deep desire to replace the local leadership as well as the national leadership.

The highest-ranking Israeli security officials should be concerned about the strong political undercurrents all around Palestinian society. The natural tendency of the security establishment is probably to keep “banking” on the current Palestinian strongmen. I don’t have to give their names here. The Israeli security officials know them very well, as does every Palestinian living in Palestine. This might be the best alternative in the very short run, but from what I hear and see in Palestine, it would not be the wisest alternative.

There is only one Palestinian personality who appears to have the ability to unite Palestinians and win free and fair elections against every other individual.

That man is Marwan Barghouti. Yes, Barghouti is in Israeli prison, sentenced to five life terms plus 40 years. He was convicted of being one of the leaders of the Second Intifada, and responsible for the killing of at least five people.

It should be stated that Barghouti refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli court. He claimed that he was an elected leader serving his people in the just rejection of the Israeli occupation. He presented no defense. The court allowed him a final statement before his sentencing, and he used the opportunity to read a long and detailed indictment against the Israeli occupation and its policies against the Palestinian people.

From 1996 until the end of 2000, I was in regular contact with Marwan Barghouti. He participated in regular closed-door roundtable meetings that I organized and ran with many Israeli politicians, including those from the ruling coalition of the first Netanyahu government. Around the tables with members of Knesset from the Likud, Shas, Tzomet, Labor and Meretz were the leaders of the Tanzim of Fatah who together with Barghouti were the most important leaders of Fatah throughout the territories.

We spent more than 200 hours in intensive dialogue, and it was clear to everyone who participated that Marwan was a leader. He was seen as a person with integrity who represented what he believed to be the national interests of the Palestinian people. Within those interests was a clear vision of peace between Palestine and Israel. Marwan, in those discussions, was a tough negotiator. He was principled and determined not to compromise on the key national interests of his people, but where compromise was possible, Marwan was the first to embrace it and even to propose it.

It is impossible to imagine that one of the leading Israeli politicians today would meet with Barghouti or even publicly support seeing him as a future leader. According to Palestinian public opinion polls over the years, if and when an election for the Palestinian president is held, and if Barghouti presents himself as a candidate, he will win. There are so many associations that come to mind between Barghouti and South African leader Nelson Mandela, who spent 26 years in prison as a terrorist. I am not saying that Barghouti is Mandela. He is not, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not exactly the same situation as was South Africa during apartheid.

In his last years in prison, Mandela was engaged in deep dialogue with the leading national security officers of South Africa. Those discussions were supported by a very courageous South African president, Frederik de Klerk. Israel does not have a de Klerk, and perhaps Barghouti is not a Mandela, but it is important enough for Israel to make the determination if Barghouti might be a possible genuine partner for the future. That is the job of the top national security personnel in Israel – and the future is now.

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. He is now directing The Holy Land Investment Bond.