On Sunday, Marwan Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times. To read it without being versed in Israeli-Palestinian affairs, one would be forgiven for thinking that Barghouti is the Palestinian Martin Luther King writing his equivalent of the letter from the Birmingham jail. Barghouti used the op-ed to announce that he is leading a hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners to protest their treatment by Israel, wrote eloquently about the Palestinian national struggle for freedom and dignity while implying that he has been imprisoned for political reasons, and was identified in his byline as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” For those who know that Barghouti is serving five consecutive life sentences after having been convicted by an Israeli civilian court for murder and terrorism in his capacity as orchestrating suicide bombings as the founder of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, this was outrageous, and the anger directed at the Times resulted in a clarification and a brushback from the paper’s public editor.
The bulk of the focus – including from Prime Minister Netanyahu, Yair Lapid, and others – has been on the fact that the New York Times gave Barghouti a platform to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and misleadingly portray himself as something he is not. This anger is in no way misplaced, and it is helping shine a light on the fact that opponents of Israel are often granted a benefit of the doubt with regard to their motives and a whitewash of their histories to an alarming degree. But the import of Barghouti’s op-ed is not the revisionist history treatment of his biography; it is rather the fact that he chose to write it now and what it says about Palestinian politics going forward and the American effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.
Barghouti is a legendary Palestinian prisoner in a society where Palestinian prisoners are granted exalted status. His leadership of the latest prisoners’ hunger strike comes on the heels of his finishing first in the Fatah Central Committee elections in December, cementing his status as the most popular Palestinian political figure, while being sidelined two months ago by the current leadership as Mahmoud Abbas chose Mahmoud al-Aloul as Fatah’s first vice president. The jockeying to replace Abbas began in earnest some time ago, but Barghouti deciding now to take up the mantle of prisoners’ rights while making as public a splash as possible in the U.S. paper of record seems like one of the clearest signal from him that he intends to be part of the future leadership conversation.
Barghouti has in some ways had it easier than most despite being in prison, as it has insulated him from having to make any decisions or engage in the daily compromises that are involved in politics. He has been able to sit back and bask in his growing popularity as current Fatah leaders walk the fine line between security coordination with Israel and maintaining their power on one side and popular will and maintaining their grassroots legitimacy on the other. He has not had to navigate the minefield of dealing with Hamas rule in Gaza and playing the game of proclaiming national unity while taking steps to use the power of the Palestinian Authority to choke Hamas. The longer he is in prison, the greater the myth that surrounds him, and should Israel end up granting prisoners any concessions as a result of this hunger strike, it will make Barghouti’s power and influence greater. That he is taking this step now indicates that he thinks a leadership transition is coming sooner rather than later, and he wants to get ahead of the internal Fatah machinations that are designed to sideline him.
The repercussions of this are not limited to Barghouti and internal Fatah jockeying for position. Leading a movement of Palestinian prisoners is guaranteed to lead to wider West Bank foment, and it will not make the IDF or Shabak sleep easier at night. I am not suggesting that this will spark an intifada, but it could lead to an uptick in violence and further support for the position that compromise or even engagement with Israel sells out the Palestinian national cause. Palestinian politicians are bound to follow public sentiment, and nobody will want to be forced to take a backseat to Barghouti on the issue of resisting Israel. It will create a wider radicalization within the Palestinian political arena, and undermine any politicians who take a more moderate tone while perhaps undermining Fatah itself in relation to Hamas.
None of this portends well for President Trump’s efforts to push the two sides toward his ultimate deal, and if the prisoner strike is not quickly resolved, it will also make for a difficult Abbas White House visit the first week in May. Abbas proved to be a difficult interlocutor for President Obama, famously not responding to Obama’s Oval Office presentation of a framework for a final status agreement in 2014. Abbas is coming to DC this time to meet with a president whose vision is not nearly as fully formed on the details, but he will undoubtedly be asked by Trump to commit to something more specific than being willing to talk. Against the backdrop of hungerstriking prisoners and Barghouti trying to force him into a corner, it will be a particularly inauspicious time for Abbas to return to Ramallah and announce that he has agreed to return to talks with Israel without first winning any significant concessions. While the sense of gloomy fatalism that enveloped the Palestinian leadership at Trump’s election may have dissipated given his apparent willingness to push Netanyahu and the Israeli government on settlements and Jason Greenblatt’s praiseworthy performance in the region last month, it does not mean that Abbas is going to suddenly give Trump anything he wants. Abbas’s politics back home are still difficult, and having a friendlier White House than he anticipated does not change the fact that he is a weak political leader without the legitimacy or the chits to say yes to any comprehensive peace deal. This Barghouti move makes that even more of an entrenched reality.
Barghouti’s New York Times byline was the type of thing that drives Israeli politicians and American Jews up a wall with frustration. The byline, however, is just a distraction in this case from everything else that is going on. If Barghouti ushers in a new era of Fatah radicalization, we will look back at the focus over the byline rather than the underlying political move as the true outrage.