Why is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now demanding the release of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as a pre-condition for agreeing to the extension of the peace talks with Israel?
A senior Palestinian official in Ramallah claimed that Barghouti's release would make it easier for Abbas to agree to the extension of the peace talks after the April 29 deadline set by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Does Abbas want Barghouti released from prison out of concern for the peace process or because he is afraid of Mohammed Dahlan, another top Fatah operative who is waging a campaign to undermine the Palestinian Authority leader?
Marwan Barghouti interviewed from his prison cell in 2006. (Image source: Fatah Youth Germany YouTube video still)
Some Palestinians believe that Abbas's demand to release Barghouti is linked to the Palestinian Authority leader's sharp dispute with Mohammed Dahlan.
According to Palestinian sources, Abbas's biggest concern is that Dahlan may have been trying to forge an alliance with Barghouti to topple him.
Abbas seems afraid that Dahlan, with the help of some Arab countries, is engaged in a scheme to remove him from power. Abbas has therefore taken a series of retaliatory measures against Dahlan, including expulsion from the Fatah Central Committee.
A Palestinian official admitted in an interview with the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat that Abbas was seeking the release of Barghouti so that he could help Abbas confront Dahlan's efforts to undermine the Palestinian Authority leader.
Abbas is apparently hoping that Barghouti will stand next to him once he succeeds in persuading the Americans and Israelis to release him in order to "salvage the peace process."
Abbas first made the demand for the release of Barghouti during his last meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama.
Barghouti, 54, was arrested by the Israel Defense Forces in April 2002 for his role in a series of terrorist attacks against Israelis. He was later sentenced to five life terms in prison.
The U.S. Administration, according to senior Palestinian officials, has promised to raise the issue of Barghouti with the Israeli government. "The Americans haven't rejected the idea that Barghouti's release would boost Abbas's chances of moving forward with the peace talks," the official said.
Some reports have even suggested that senior U.S. government officials have been holding "daily phone calls" with Barghouti in his prison cell to check whether he has plans to run in a future Palestinian presidential election. The Americans apparently believe that Barghouti, unlike Abbas, would rush to make far-reaching concessions that would pave the way for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
This assumption is baseless given Barghouti's public statements over the past few years. Those who believe that Barghouti would be more flexible than Abbas regarding the peace process are living in an illusion. In fact, Barghouti's position regarding the peace process with Israel is no different than that of Abbas, and possibly even less flexible.
In his last interview from prison, Barghouti held Israel fully responsible for the lack of progress in the peace process. He even called for unilateral Palestinian moves such as joining international institutions and treaties, in addition to the International Criminal Court, to pave the way for filing war crimes charges against Israel.
Barghouti also called for a Palestinian campaign to "isolate and boycott" Israel in order to force it to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines.
Like Abbas, Barghouti has also repeatedly called for an upsurge in "popular resistance" against Israel to force it to comply with Palestinian demands.
Ironically, Barghouti does not believe that the U.S. Administration, which apparently supports his release, is capable of serving as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because of its "bias" in favor of Israel.
And, unlike Abbas, Barghouti does not support the idea of land swaps with Israel. "No one is entitled to amend the borders or carry out land swaps," Barghouti declared in the interview. "The Palestinian people insist on a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and the removal of all settlements."
Moreover, Barghouti appears to be opposed to the current security coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In this regard, Barghouti shares the position of Hamas, which is also opposed to security coordination.
Hence it is not clear why some are convinced that Barghouti would rush to endorse a more lenient approach toward Israel once he is freed from prison.
Abbas himself is aware that neither he nor Barghouti would be able to make real concessions to Israel, especially on hard-core issues such as Jerusalem and refugees. Abbas also knows that no Palestinian leader would ever be able to come back to his people with a deal that does not include 100% of Palestinian demands. As former Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat is reputed to have said after abandoning the Camp David talks, "Do you want see me up there having tea with Sadat?"
For many years, Abbas seemed to do little to help Barghouti get out of Israeli prison. At one stage, Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, even accused Abbas and the Palestinian Authority leadership of failing to assist her in her efforts to secure the release of her husband.
The demand to free Barghouti is not related to the future of the peace talks in any way. The only person who would benefit from such a move is Abbas himself, who wants to take credit for releasing one of the Palestinians' most prominent figures from Israeli jail.