One of the most important news stories of the week was also one of the least noticed. According to a Saudi newspaper quoted in the Jerusalem Post and in Ynet, Israel may be ready to free Marwan Barghouti as part of a prisoner swap for Gilad Schalit.
Barghouti is the most popular leader on the West Bank, bar none. He emerged during the Oslo years as one of the young, home-grown leaders of Fatah, imprisoned during the first intifada, fluent in Hebrew and outspokenly in favor of a two-state solution. He’s been in prison since 2005, serving five life sentences for murder during the second intifada. Since the day of his arrest there’s been open speculation that Israel was going to hold him to build up his street cred and then dramatically release him to become a sort of Palestinian Mandela. It turned out he was going to be tried, sentenced and incarcerated as a terrorist chieftain, not a potential partner.
But the speculation hasn’t let up. Here’s Uri Avnery in 2007 calling him Mandela, here’s Jerusalem Post leftist-in-residence Larry Derfner in 2004 calling him a thug and no Mandela, and here is uber-pundit Ron Ben-Yishai writing in Yediot in 2008 that freeing Barghouti would be a win-win for Hamas, Fatah and Israel alike, because he’s the only one who could bring Hamas to heel, unite the Palestinians, sign a peace treaty and make it stick.
Bradley Burston called last winter for Barghouti to be released summarily, without a Schalit deal, so as to strengthen Fatah and embarrass Hamas. Netanyahu & co. don’t seem to have been smart enough to pick up on that. Still, if they’re going ahead and reluctantly freeing him to Hamas as part of a swap, it could still be a serious game-changer.
Here is a 9-minute YouTube clip of Barghouti giving a rare filmed interview in January 2006 in prison, in English, to Lindsey Hilsum of Britain’s Channel 4 news (and here’s the transcript of the interview).
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).