Marwan Barghouti is no Mandela, but Netanyahu should let him go
The possibility of releasing Marwan Barghouti -- a Palestinian leader convicted and imprisoned by Israel on multiple murder charges -- is on the agenda once again, this time in connection with the release of the last batch of Palestinian inmates which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to free at the start of peace talks. Prior to that, Bargouti's release hadn't made headlines since the 2011 prisoner swap that saw the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit set free in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
In his youth, Barghouti spent many years in Israeli prisons before travelling to Tunisia and eventually returning to the West Bank after the 1993 Oslo Accord. His Hebrew is much better than his English, he has read a lot about Israel and studied it thoroughly. Therefore his attitude towards the Jewish state is a combination of admiration and hostility. He realizes that an agreement with Israel is a clear Palestinian interest and was one of the most prominent supporters of the Oslo process.
The failure to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord by May 4 1999 -- as the Oslo architects had planned -- was a major blow to Barghouti. He hoped that it would be possible to reach a historic agreement at the Camp David summit in July 2000; and after that fell through, he decided to lead Fatah into a violent popular uprising in order to stay ahead of the more militant Hamas and retain control of the Palestinian street.
The decision by the then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to ascend to Jerusalem's Temple Mount compound, accompanied by members of his Likud party and thousands of police officers, sparked the second intifada and played into Barghouti's hands. Palestinian President Yasser Arafat hesitated whether or not to join Barghouti's play, and finally decided to follow the path of least resistance, and rode the wave of violence set in motion by his student.
Barghouti soon became caught up in a competition with Hamas over who could inflict more violence on Israel. As the uprising intensified, and the Palestinian death toll rose, he became more and more hard line. He found himself delivering extreme statements, and was responsible for decisions that led to more and more violence. When he was apprehended by Israeli security forces, Israel decided to hand him over to a civilian court, rather than a military one which tries most Palestinian terror suspects, and he was sentenced to five life terms in prison. He refused to acknowledge the Israeli court's authority.
The late Justice Sarah Sirota, who was among the three trial judges, admitted after she stepped down from the bench, that trying Barghouti in a civilian, rather than a military court, was the wrong thing to do.
Once the evidence tying him to ordering killings was presented in court, the judges had no choice but to mete out the most severe punishment possible, but they should not have ignored his background as a Palestinian lawmaker and one of the main leaders representing the middle generation of leaders. After all, he was not the only Palestinian leader to get caught up in the violent escalation of the second intifada, and the Israeli government of the time, knew it was impossible to try the Palestinian leadership.
Barghouti is not the Dalai Lama or Gandhi. The fact that he has been behind bars for a long time doesn't make him Nelson Mandela, either. He made a grievous error of judgement in the fall of 2000 when he tried to face off with Hamas in an arena where Hamas has a significant advantage -- terrorism and violence. He is, however, one of the most important Palestinian leaders, and whether free or behind bars, he is a candidate to replace Mahmoud Abbas.
Barghouti has not changed his mind about an agreement with Israel being a paramount Palestinian interest, he is one of the sole Palestinians who are appreciated both by the PLO and by Hamas, he knows the Israeli leadership and may be a significant, even if not easy, negotiating partner. Anybody who is seeking a Palestinian partner who can "sell" his people on a peace agreement with Israel must concede that Barghouti is one of the few men who can do it.
Such a move would not be easy for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it is apparently easier for him to free prisoners than to freeze settlement construction. If he is interested in continuing indirect negotiations with Abbas, and if he is interested in a future partner (and it's a big "if"), he would be better off releasing Barghouti.
Yossi Beilin is president of the business consulting firm Beilink. In the past he served as a minister in three Israeli governments and as a Member of Knesset for Labor and Meretz. He was one of the pioneers of the Oslo Accords, the Geneva Initiative and Birthright.