A Palestinian Reaches for Mandela's Mantle

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Marwan Barghouti shouts as he is pushed out of a courtroom in Tel Aviv

Time served in an Israeli prison is no liability for an aspirant Palestinian leader. That may be why Marwan Barghouti was positively loquacious during his first appearance in a Tel Aviv courtroom on Tuesday on charges of terrorism and murder.

Although the judge stopped him from reading a list of charges against Israel, the stout 43-year-old Fatah leader signaled his intention to use his trial as a bully pulpit. "Security will only be achieved ... by peace," told journalists, using the Hebrew he mastered during previous stays in Israeli prisons. "And peace will only be achieved by the end of the occupation."

Charging Barghouti in the public glare of a civilian court rather than in the shadowy secrecy of a military tribunal (more typically granted Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza) is a calculated political risk for Israel. The authorities aim to produce evidence — including testimony from, among others, two imprisoned Barghouti deputies who have apparently agreed to speak against their boss — portraying Barghouti as the operational godfather of the Al Aksa Martyr's Brigade, a Fatah offshoot responsible for scores of suicide terror attacks that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. Israeli officials hope such a charge will convince the world of the Palestinian Authority's intimate involvement in terrorism — Barghouti, after all, is a senior Palestinian legislator and the organizational chief of Arafat's own political party.

But some Israeli right-wingers have warned that a civilian court will offer a political platform to the most articulate spokesman for the Palestinian intifada. Barghouti grabbed just such an opportunity during his brief appearance Tuesday, directing his political message at Israelis. And his lawyer has also made clear that Barghouti's legal defense is rooted in the premise that the Israeli court has no authority to try his client, something Barghouti's representatives have maintained since his capture by an Israeli special forces unit outside Ramallah.

Whether that strategy is legally sustainable is doubtful, but it is politically sound. And there's certainly some doubt on the typically liberal Israeli bench over the extent and nature of Israel's legal authority in recently reoccupied territories. On the same day as Barghouti's appearance, Israeli Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner stopped the Israeli military from deporting three relatives of a Palestinian suicide terrorist from the West Bank to Gaza. She ordered a 15-day reprieve, during which she wants to hear a detailed discussion on the legal issues involved — including the legal status of Israeli authority in the territories from which the Palestinians were to have been expelled.

So, while the Israelis hope to use the trial to mark the PA as a duplicitous terror infrastructure that systematically betrayed its security undertakings to Israel, Barghouti will portray Israel as a colonial master claiming authority over 3.5 million West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Exhibit A: his own trial by a state in which he lacks the democratic rights of a citizen.

And whatever its outcome, the trial may work to Barghouti's political advantage. Even if the Israeli court and public opinion are unimpressed by his distinction between attacks inside Israel and those on soldiers and settlers in the West Bank and Gaza, even a life sentence will only enhance Barghouti's stature among Palestinians. He continues to play a key role in Palestinian political life, and his approval is considered central to current efforts by PA leaders to secure a unilateral cease-fire among militants from Fatah and Hamas. He has also signaled his intention to campaign, from prison, if need be, for reelection to the Palestinian legislature in elections scheduled for early next year.

Barghouti's incarceration is more likely to strengthen than diminish his claim to the mantle of Palestinian national leadership. He's already the most popular Fatah leader after the aging Arafat, and that popularity derives precisely from his willingness to challenge the PA's corruption and cronyism, and to forcefully stand up to both the Israelis and the Americans. Barghouti maintains he shares the goal of the U.S. and most Israelis of resolving the conflict by creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. But unlike them — although more in keeping with the sentiments on the Palestinian street — he sees "armed struggle," at least in the West Bank and Gaza, as a valid and effective means of pursuing that goal. Imprisoning Barghouti may be the equivalent of a political favor, because incarceration would keep him aloof from the messy politics of compromise and negotiation in the months and even years ahead. (Indeed, an imprisoned Barghouti may represent more of a headache for Arafat than for the Israelis — already there have been reports from Ramallah of Palestinian police being sent out by Arafat aides to tear down posters of Barghouti printed in dimensions usually reserved exclusively for the PA leader himself.)

Even if the trial does create a platform for Barghouti to address his propaganda message in Hebrew to an Israeli public made all too aware that his incarceration has done nothing to stop the relentless wave of terror attacks — and also that the open-ended war with the Palestinians has accelerated a disastrous shrinkage of the Israeli economy — it may be some time before he can reap the benefits. Israel's attorney general wouldn't have ordered the trial if he wasn't confident of a conviction. And while prison may restrict Barghouti to a symbolic presence in Palestinian politics, he clearly takes a long-term view — his strategy of "armed struggle" to end the occupation was partly inspired by the success of Hezbollah's 20-year guerrilla war in persuading Israel to withdraw from Lebanon. Barghouti may be betting that prison will anoint him as Arafat's ultimate successor, and also confer on him the nationalist moral authority necessary to make the compromises of statesmanship. But while Barghouti may imagine himself in the role of a Palestinian Mandela, he can't relish the fact that between the South African leader's conviction on terrorism charges and his triumphant release, he languished in prison for a quarter century.