16 August 09
The election last week of convicted murderer Marwan Barghouti to the Fatah Central Committee has reinvigorated long-extant advocacy for his release among those Israeli politicians apparently convinced that he alone can revive the moribund peace process.
The view that Barghouti could do what no one else would - and that he wants to - is rife in some Labor, Kadima and Meretz quarters, though it is by no means the unanimous attitude in at least the first two of these parties.
On May 20, 2004, Barghouti, commander of Fatah's Tanzim militia, was convicted by an Israeli civilian court on five counts of murder, including commissioning and organizing the attack on Tel Aviv's Seafood Market restaurant where three guests partaking in a bachelorette party were shot to death in 2002. He was sentenced to five life sentences, and another 40 years for attempted murder.
Nevertheless, there are people both abroad and inside Israel who persist in depicting Barghouti's imprisonment as somehow illicit. Many more consider it counterproductive. Relying on Barghouti's perceived relative moderation prior to the second intifada, they argue that only he can foster the adoption by the Palestinian leadership, and the acceptance by the Palestinian public, of viable terms for the two-state solution sought by mainstream Israel, including by our current prime minister. This faith in Barghouti as peacemaker persists despite his self-acknowledged orchestration of the second intifada terror war and even recent inflammatory statements to the Fatah convention.
Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) argues that "Barghouti is the only one who can deliver the goods to Israel."
His party colleague, Minorities Affairs Avishai Braverman, believes that "we must consider freeing Barghouti in order to create a viable, strong Palestinian leadership."
Kadima MK Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of the Shin Bet security agency, declares that "Barghouti is the best anti-Hamas bulwark. Israel needs a strong man to negotiate with."
Common to such statements is the assertion of ostensible pragmatism - at the expense of considerations of justice, even for Barghouti's murdered victims.
But those considerations are anything but marginal.
Bringing terrorists to trial is no negligible matter. Members of Israel's security forces put their lives on the line to track down and capture such homicidal kingpins. What message do we send to them if we then set those terrorists free?
What of the inherent contempt for our own judicial system - one of the most autonomous, fair-minded and progressive in the entire democratic world? By overruling multiple murder convictions, we invalidate verdicts, delegitimize our courts and damage Israel's legal reputation beyond repair.
In truth, furthermore, there is no pragmatic certainty here - no remotely credible reason to believe that Israel, if it followed this route, would be doing anything more than liberating a dangerous antagonist, and potentially facilitating new terror onslaughts of the sort Barghouti masterminded in the past.
Setting Barghouti free, not incidentally, would also reward the hard line adopted by Fatah at its assembly in Bethlehem these past few days - including the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state, the adherence to a "right of return" that would turn Israel into Palestine by weight of numbers, and the demand for full Palestinian control of Jerusalem as a precondition to renewing negotiations.
NONE OF the advocates of Barghouti's release has ever detailed precisely how or when he was transformed from a killer into a peace-lover. None can credibly explain why Barghouti's own rhetoric, which so contradicts their assertions, should be dismissed.
In this context it is instructive to listen to Kadima's Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet head and ex-minister of public security. Barghouti "earned his status in PA society with the blood of murdered and wounded Israelis," Dichter, a proven advocate of compromise with the Palestinians, said this week. "This man has amply proved his unreliability."
This admonition should also be kept in mind vis-a-vis Hamas, which is now demanding Barghouti's release as part of the ransom for Gilad Schalit. Much as we all want the kidnapped soldier back home, we need to remember why Barghouti is popular in Gaza, and that securing Schalit's release in an outrageously asymmetrical "exchange" would merely boost the incentive for more abductions, and the capacity for more terrorism. In ignoring this unhappy truth, the architects of such an exchange would be risking another of the "crazy deals" so bitterly censured by the Winograd Committee.
Related: Justice (1995)