This interview was originally published in Yedioth Ahronoth in Hebrew; it has been translated by Diana Buttu of The Institute for Middle East Understanding.
The moment that Abbas officially announces his resignation, even if I am in prison, I will put forward my candidacy for President (of the Palestinian Authority) and I will win.
This is what Marwan Barghouthi said from his cell – number 28, section 3 – during an exclusive interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, later republished in the Al-Quds newspaper as its lead story.
The imprisoned Palestinian leader has spent 5 years in an Israeli prison and there are many awaiting his announcement [to run as President of the Palestinian Authority]; not just in Ramallah, Gaza or Nablus but in wider circles, including within the office of Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister of Israel. Barghouthi asserts that the possibility of his release is more likely now than in any period in the past.
On his release:
Q: In your opinion, when do you think that you will be released from prison?
A: There has been talk about releasing me since the first day of my arrest. One time they said that they would release me in exchange for the release of Azzam Azzam from an Egyptian prison. Then they said that they would release me in exchange for releasing [Jonathan] Pollard from an American prison. Now they are talking about releasing me in exchange for Gilad Shalit but the negotiations have been difficult. Despite all of these statements, I am entering the sixth year of my imprisonment and I am still hopeful that my issue will be resolved in which my release comes in exchange for the release of Shalit, who will released in exchange for [Palestinian political] prisoners, including political leaders. I am optimistic and firmly believe that a prisoner exchange will happen sooner rather than later.
Q: Do you believe that Abu Mazen is doing his best to secure your release?
A: Definitely and I am convinced of that. I am assured that he has exerted a great deal of effort to secure the release of a large number of prisoners and that he has raised the issue in all of his meetings. The Palestinian people have much to gain from my release as well as the release of all prisoners. I am optimistic and I know that I will be released. It is just a question of time
Marwan Barghouthi was sentenced on 6 June 2004 – the day of his 45th birthday – to 5 life sentences plus forty years under the charge of participating in four [military] operations: in the Sea Food restaurant in Tel Aviv, in the shopping mall in Malha, Jerusalem, at a bus stop in [the settlement of] Pisgat Ze’ev and on Jerusalem road in [the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim] in which 5 Israelis were killed. Two years prior, Barghouthi was accused of being involved in 37 [military] operations, however, an Israeli district court in Tel-Aviv decided that he could only be tried for those [military] operations that he was personally involved in. He was charge with murder, attempted murder and involvement in a terrorist organization.
On the First “Truce”:
Barghouthi has, over the course of the past four years, become a powerful political figure in internal politics. In 2003, he was responsible for attaining the first truce (Hudna) and later the second truce. He played an instrumental role in the election of Mahmoud Abbas as the Palestinian President and he worked to obtain an agreement of all Palestinian factions to ensure that there was no firing [upon Israeli settlers and soldiers] during the Israeli disengagement. He was also behind the Prisoners’ Document that outlined 18 points of agreement between Hamas and Fatah and which later served to form the national unity government headed by Ismail Haniyeh. He was one of the authors of the Mecca Agreement between Abu Mazen and Khaled Meshal which ended with Hamas’s control over the Gaza Strip. He recently participated in the formation of the emergency government headed by Dr. Salam Fayyad.
It was not by accident that Yuval Diskin, head of the [Israeli] Shabak, said that Barghouthi plays a moderating role from prison. Increasing are the voices in Israel of those who believe that Barghouthi is a Palestinian leader who must be reckoned with. These voices do not only belong to the Israeli left. Gideon Ezra has said, “I have met with him more than once and he is not a lover of Israel – and no one expects this of him – but I think that if they release him, he will support the opposition to Hamas. I was in the minority asking for his release without any result because all of the decisions are taken by the Shabak, the government and even Abu Mazen doesn’t believe that [he will oppose Hamas].”
And with this the issue of his release cannot be divorced from reality: when we speak of the release of Gilad Shalit, Barghouthi’s name appears on Hamas’s list of prisoners to be exchanged. His name also appears on the short list but this requires a political decision. This is not discussed openly but it is clear that when they sign any agreement with Abu Mazen he will need tremendous support to convince the Palestinian people of the agreement. This choice has become more relevant with the international conference that will take place in November in Washington, DC. Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State, is now convinced that Barghouthi is needed to support Abu Mazen’s position and the request [for his release] sits on Ehud Olmert’s desk.
Barghouthi believes that there is a third means of being released from his life sentences: he is prepared, from within prison, to take on the role of president through democratic elections [even while in prison]. He is convinced that if he wins it will cause a great deal of international, domestic and Israeli pressure to release him.
It is not comfortable for Israeli authorities to see a new Palestinian leader imprisoned in an Israeli prison: it will be embarrassing for Israel. For this reason, the Israeli authorities have prevented interviews with him inside Israeli prisons. This interview was done through the assistance of his lawyer. We sent the questions to him through Khader Shkirat [his lawyer] and in this difficult way we cannot challenge him on his answers. We could not ask follow-up questions. But, through his answers we can understand a few things about his political opinions and the personal life of a man who has, for the last few years, been considered the upcoming leader in the entity next to Israel.
On Being a Life Line:
Barghouthi is considered, in the eyes of many within Fatah, to be a personal life line to respond to Hamas’s takeover of Gaza. The old members of Fatah, consisting of the Tunis crowd (Sheikhs), view the matter differently: they fear that the new generation will run the show and will isolate them from political life in a year and a half’s time. This was confirmed a month and a half ago during a meeting of the Fatah Central Committee in which it became clear that Abu Mazen’s new ally is Abu Maher (Ahmed Ghaneim).
Perhaps Abu Mazen does not see Barghouti as his ally but he needs him in order to face difficulties such as the disintegration of Fatah, the reconstruction of the institutions of the Palestinian Authority and the difficult decisions he must take.
Barghouthi says, “I am not in anyone’s pocket. I was not in Arafat’s pocket nor will I be in Abu Mazen’s pocket. I am in the pocket of the Palestinian people. I am convinced that the generation that grew up under Israeli occupation, that participated in the first and second intifadas, that can understand the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be [the individuals who] lead.”
On Abu Maher:
Q: Does Abu Mazen want to go around you and therefore has appointed Abu Maher his successor?
A: Abu Maher was supposed to return [to Palestine] with the late Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat] but he was opposed to Oslo and he preferred to stay in Tunis. I applaud each person who wants to return and Abu Maher is one of the old members of Fatah so I applaud his return.
When I asked Barghouthi about the coup in Gaza, he became angry and said, “Hamas stabbed the Palestinian [people] in the back. Hamas’s coup over the legitimate authority of Abu Mazen was a big strategic error that destroyed all possibility for cooperation with Fatah. The coup took place against the national unity government and against Palestinian unity. The responsibility for a divided Palestinian people rests entirely with Hamas. It is necessary to undo these measures and restore legitimate authority with Abu Mazen before there is any dialogue. The road to restarting dialogue is closed in this period.”
Q: After you cooperated with Hamas and believed the slogan “partners in blood, partners in decision-making” were you surprised by the coup in Gaza?
A: It was a surprise and I never believed that Hamas could act in such a manner. This is a knife stab to partnership in the struggle and democratic partnership and national unity. This is incredibly painful and difficult and it is not just Hamas that will suffer but the Palestinian people and their unity. This has turned into a disaster for the Palestinian cause.
Q: Do you see that there is a danger of Hamas also taking over the West Bank?
A: After this bitter experience in Gaza, it is important not to underestimate any possibility. For this reason, it is important to undertake reform of the Palestinian security forces and to put it under a unified command and in particular a strategic unit whose goal is to prevent this [takeover] from occurring. This problem is the result of Israeli plans to ensure that there is not a unified, strong, trained command. Fatah is strong in the West Bank and is a guarantee of protection for the Palestinian Authority and will prevent any attempts of a coup d’etat.
It is incumbent upon Fatah to revive itself and to rebuild itself. It is necessary to hold the general conference and to elect new committees, including a new Central Committee and a new Revolutionary Council. It is necessary to vote for new candidates and to vote for women and youth, academics and artists – we are in need of a leadership that can command the respect of the people; a leadership with clean hands.
Q: What are your expectations of the international conference that will be hosted in November by President Bush?
A: This is not a conference but a meeting that, to date, does not have an agenda. I say, with honesty, that the Palestinian people can no longer tolerate conferences and international committees that simply make us lose hope and lose confidence in the peace process. For this reason, it is necessary for Palestinians to place as a condition on their participation the reaching of a real political solution and not just statements and speeches that just waste time.
In principle, I support participating in all conferences or meetings that will advance Palestinian interests. The success or failure of any conference, in my point of view is a question of whether it will lead to an end to the occupation. To the present day, in spite of the willingness to attend the Washington conference, all indicators are that the Israeli government is headed in the opposite direction: the Israeli forces have not withdrawn from West Bank towns and cities; they have not stopped their assassinations and imprisonments and they continue to invade Palestinian cities; they have not removed their checkpoints; the Palestinian prisoners number 11,000 and the Israeli government announces day and night their desire to help Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, yet on the ground they do the opposite. Instead of helping them, they hurt them.
On his political position:
Q: Are you afraid that Abu Mazen will make concessions during the Washington conference?
A: No Palestinian can cross red lines of national consensus and this is imposed also upon the Palestinian leadership. As I have heard and as I know, no one will make concessions to Palestinian positions: the key to peace is the end of the occupation and the dismantlement of settlements and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital and the return of refugees and the adoption of the Arab Initiative and we must move in this direction. Any agreement must be approved by the PLC and through a popular referendum.
Q. In your opinion, should there be early elections?
A: Many democracies hold early elections for one reason or another. I believe that we should hold elections before the end of 2008, but after the coup in Gaza we should hold PLC and Presidential elections at the same time in order to get out of this crisis.