WASHINGTON — American officials are pressing jailed leader Marwan Barghouti to withdraw from next month’s Palestinian elections, in what some insiders describe as a desperate attempt to salvage the newfound progress in the peace process and avoid an embarrassing blow to America’s push for democracy in the Arab world.
The Forward has learned that American officials met this week with associates of Barghouti, currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for masterminding multiple murders, in a bid to convince him to drop his candidacy for the Palestinian Authority presidency. The Bush administration, according to diplomatic sources, is concerned that a pre-election deterioration in the security situation in the territories could push Palestinian voters to support a militant such as the 45-year-old Barghouti rather than Mahmoud Abbas, 69, a moderate in the eyes of Jerusalem and Washington. The newly appointed chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the official candidate of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Party, Abbas has denounced violence and is quietly supported by Israel and the United States.
Two polls show a dead heat between Abbas and Barghouti, the fiery commander of Fatah’s military wing, who last week surprisingly joined the race. The elections are scheduled for January 9.
“Such a development would not only mean a setback to peace efforts, but an egg on the face of our policy to democratize the Middle East,” a State Department official said.
Barghouti’s ascension comes as some observers say the Bush administration appears, at least for now, to be scaling back its doctrine of reforming the Middle East through the spread of democracy.
In recent months, growing Arab anger at the United States has led the Bush administration to alter its grand plans to bring democracy to the region through American public diplomacy. The administration has reportedly scaled down its bold intention to engage with the Arab public in order to promote the creation of civil societies, and instead it is counting on its international allies and on Arab regimes to take the lead. It is also focusing on economic incentives to small businesses and female entrepreneurs. Next week, Secretary of State Colin Powell will attend a summit in Morocco to discuss the promotion of democracy in the region. According to State Department sources, he has no plans to introduce any new political initiative there.
In recent weeks, with escalating violence in Iraq threatening to undermine nationwide elections set for January 30, administration officials appear to be banking on an orderly Palestinian vote as a much-needed face-saving victory in its push for democracy in the region. But the sudden specter of a Barghouti win threatens to turn the Palestinian elections into a diplomatic embarrassment, since Israeli officials say that they will not negotiate with the jailed Fatah activist.
According to two polls released this week by reputable Palestinian pollsters, renegade Fatah leader Barghouti, a prisoner in Israel sentenced to life for masterminding multiple murders, has a good chance of winning the presidential race. According to one poll, 46% of Palestinians support the 45-year-old fiery commander of Fatah’s military wing, who last week surprisingly joined the race. That was two points better than Abbas, the newly appointed chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Fatah’s official candidate, who has denounced violence and is quietly supported by Israel and the United States. Another poll showed Abbas leading Barghouti 40%-38%, a statistical dead heat.
“If Barghouti is elected on January 9, it would just further validate the notion that democracy-promotion is tinkering with a Pandora’s box,” said Martin Kramer, a modern Middle Eastern history professor at Tel Aviv University and visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
Kramer noted that the president’s approach of “peace through democracy,” never has been shared by the Israeli political or military establishment, although two of the idea’s most prominent champions are senior Israeli politicians: former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and minister Natan Sharansky.
Last month, while promoting his new book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” Sharansky was invited to the White House for separate meetings with President Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Both told him they were impressed with his book and sought his advice on advancing democracy.
Sharansky, in an interview with the Forward, said he was elated that someone finally is taking his ideas seriously. “It just so happened that three days into my book tour, it was no other than the President of the United States who wanted to discuss my book with me and told me how much he agrees with me,” he mused. “I have been saying these things for 20 years,” Sharansky added. “In Israel, the reactions varied from skepticism to mockery, and they still do. In America, there was a small minority that agreed with me.”
“When I met with the president, I was so impressed with his belief in my argument that I told him I am happy to find a fellow dissident in him,” Sharansky said. “I told him: ‘You believe in an idea and you go forward with it, regardless of what experts and polls may say or what diplomatic traditions may be.’ I think he liked that.”
The book, Sharansky said, reinforced Bush’s belief in the centrality of freedom and democracy as keys for world order and peace, and gave the president a “theoretical foundation” for his thoughts on this issue.
Sharansky was invited to the White House on November 11 to see the President. Following a lengthy meeting with Rice that day, Sharansky spent more than an hour in the Oval Office with Bush.
Bush had received the galleys of Sharansky’s book from Tom Bernstein, who, along with Bush and other businessman once owned the Texas Rangers baseball club. Bush reportedly pored through the book at Camp David and asked Rice to read it, too.
Shortly after the meeting with Sharansky, Bush intensified his emphasis on the importance of democratizing the Palestinian society as a condition for peace.
A day after the meeting with Sharansky, at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush said: “I don’t think there will ever be lasting peace until there is a free, truly democratic society in the Palestinian territories that becomes a state.” He added, referring to the Palestinians: “If you choose not to be helped, if you decide you don’t want a free, democratic society, there’s nothing we can do.”
Two weeks later, in a speech in Canada, Bush said: “Achieving peace in the Holy Land is not just a matter of pressuring one side or the other on the shape of a border or the site of a settlement. This approach has been tried before without success. As we negotiate the details of peace, we must look to the heart of the matter, which is the need for a Palestinian democracy.”