Is a Barghouti presidency the best hope for a free Palestine?

Is a Barghouti presidency the best hope for a free Palestine?
Comment: For the disillusioned and the frustrated, Barghouti's presidency seems like an attractive option. But the staying power of his revolutionary rhetoric is far from guaranteed, writes Emad Moussa.
6 min read
02 Mar, 2021
Barghouti has been serving five life sentences in Israeli prison since 2002 [Getty]
According to opinion polls, Marwan Barghouti is set to win the Palestinian presidential elections in July against octogenarian Abbas who's been president since 2006, and whose popularity has been in steady decline

A major leader in the First Intifada in 1987, Barghouti was exiled to Jordan. He returned to Palestine after the singing of the Oslo agreement in 1994. Two years later he was elected a member to the Palestinian Legislative Council. It was during the Second Intifada that Barghouti became a popular resistance figure and leader of Fatah's military wing. He's been in Israeli prison since 2002 over multiple charges pertaining to violent attacks on Israelis.

The prospect of Abbas losing and fearing for Fatah's internal unity has scrambled some Fatah leaders to dissuade Barghouti from running, as they did in 2004 and 2005.

Back then, Barghouti withdrew his candidacy over fears for Fatah's internal unity. In 2005, he briefly started a breakaway party (Al-Mustaqbal) but soon rejoined the Fatah List for similar reasons. Today, Fatah leaders seem adamant to pull the Party together and resolve internal disagreements to at least avoid another 2006 scenario, when Hamas scored a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections. 

Whether or not the news of Barghouti's intention to run for president is confirmed, his potential candidacy raises questions not only about the logistical and political challenges, but also about the type of presidency Barghouti might lead. 

For many, Barghouti could provide easy answers to this national predicament

Serving five life sentences in Israeli prison since 2002, it's unclear how realistic it is for Barghouti to be president. Some hope - certainly his close ally and senior Fatah member Hatem Abdul-Qader does - that if Barghouti wins while in prison, the chances are Israel will be pressured to release him, or at least a deputy can be chosen to run office until he's released.  

Judging by Palestinian experience with Israel, this seems like a posture of defiance, certainly an attempt to create a Palestinian Mandela, more than it is a realistic endeavour. Barghouti's freedom is more contingent on a prisoners' exchange with Israel, and this plays right into the hands of Hamas, which is in possession of Israeli soldiers in Gaza. The other option is a comprehensive "peace deal", which seems very unlikely now. 

To ordinary Palestinians, the factional internal intricacies take second priority. There are unpleasant facts on the ground bordering on the existential, ranging from shrinking hopes for statehood to a collective feeling of Arab abandonment. For many, Barghouti could provide easy answers to this national predicament. To cite Aljazeera's Marwan Bishara, he might be the re-igniter of the Palestinian "revolutionary zeal".

For those of us who came of age during the Second Intifada, Bishara's comment strikes close to home. We remember Barghouti as a dedicated revolutionary with spotless credentials, but he was also an emotional speaker, bordering on the populist. In a deeply grieved and psychologically fatigued society, his heated sentiment resonated well with many. Emotional rhetoric as it might be, some felt he channeled their anguish and frustration to the world. 

In contrast to the mild-mannered and hyper-cautious Abbas, Barghouti is deemed a remnant of the classical Arafatism; in other words, a romanticised version of a long-gone revolution. Arafat was skilful at managing the differences within Fatah and he spoke directly to Palestinian hearts and minds. With his death, Fatah lost much of its raison d'être, and with it the clarity and straightforwardness of the Palestinian cause.

Read more: Palestinian elections 2021: Reconciling competing motives

For Abbas, whose revolutionary credentials and association with Arafat's legacy have been questioned from the beginning, the mission to keep Fatah together was extremely challenging. This is exactly what Barghouti has vowed to rectify. For the disillusioned, the frustrated, and those of us who simply disagree with Abbas' political clientelism, a Barghouti presidency seems like an attractive option. But is the idea of revolution? 

The revolutionary language and message are simple, and the rhetoric is clear; something that appeals to the masses. A populist discourse at best, it provides easy answers to highly complex questions. 

But if the revolutionary sentiment in Palestinian history tells us anything it's that rhetorics rarely evolve to become long-term strategies. 

Barghouti's revolutionary rhetoric is comforting and revitalising, it works to mobilise the masses and reinstate their collective sense of honour and pride, same as every other revolutionary movement in history. 

But it's this simple answer or clear rhetoric that makes his political programme somewhat problematic. 

Fundamental to Barghouti's programme is ending Palestinian disunity, but this hardly qualifies as a strategy

For some of us, the Palestinians observing from outside the "circle", what's being promoted as realpolitik by or on Barghouti's behalf seems like a partial recreation of a failed experiment. This realpolitik - as did the revolution - answers to Palestinian needs by providing generic, short-term and somewhat vague solutions, but falls short in providing a solid, long-term strategy. 

Granted, fundamental to Barghouti's programme is ending Palestinian disunity, but this hardly qualifies as a strategy. It's at best a most needed remedy for an anomalous situation that should never have existed in the first place.

As it stands, intrinsic to Barghouti's approach is the orthodox Palestinian "resist, defy, and persevere." It might have worked early in the revolution in the 1960 through 1980s, but in today's world, and especially with the establishment of a semblance of a state, this translates to a non-strategy. As if to say, "repeat the old tactics and wish for the best."

Palestinians, for example, resisted and defied Donald Trump and persevered against his policies, but that was meant to outlive his presidency, and then "hope for the best" with the next president. 

By re-igniting the "revolutionary worldview" we also run the risk of perpetuating the dreadful revolutionary meritology. Revolutionaries aim for high ideals and hope for rewards equal to their sacrifices. Their worldview, in other words, must be respected simply because they "did or suffered more".

The revolution isn't and shouldn't be an end in itself

In Palestinian history, this has been rather costly, not least in terms of hindering political participation, deepening factional fragmentation, and curbing the freedom to seek an alternative path for liberation outside the Arafatist methodology, the Abbasist clientelism, or Hamas' Islamist perspective. Repeatedly this led to inter- and intra-faction fighting.

What brings Palestinians together isn't the state of perpetual revolution; rather, the sharing of feelings of injustice and aspiration for an independent state.

Palestine needs a comprehensive strategy, not a change for the sake of change, or out of frustration or desperation. The revolution isn't and shouldn't be an end in itself, and experience shows that changing leadership doesn't necessarily lead to change in the status quo.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.  

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.