Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti for president?

If Barghouti runs and wins the Palestinian election, he may well become Palestine’s Nelson Mandela.

An Israeli prison guard escorts jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti to a deliberation at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on January 25, 2012 [File: Reuters/Baz Ratner]

Palestinian politician Marwan Barghouti, who is seen as the leader of the First and Second Intifada, is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison. His intention to run for president in the upcoming Palestinian elections has shaken the Palestinian political scene. If he runs and wins, as recent polls have suggested he might, his victory could reshape the Palestinian cause with great implications for the Israeli occupation.

Predictably, Barghouti is facing a stiff opposition from the octogenarian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is planning a rerun, and from his clique of loyalists in the Fatah party, who have been running the Palestinian Authority for over two decades.

They have been trying to dissuade Barghouti from running, as they did the last time around, but to no avail. The popular 61-year-old seems adamant, as this may be his last chance to step up and restore the revolutionary zeal to the Palestinian cause.

Barghouti’s detractors, however, claim that he may be driven by personal not revolutionary motives in seeking to win the presidency, as that may secure his release from prison.

This is rich coming from those who for years have benefitted from running the Palestinian Authority and its security services, while the rest of the Palestinians have suffered under occupation.

Still, regardless of his reasons and their motives, the idea of a long-serving Palestinian political prisoner being elected president is a definite game-changer for Palestine and Israel.

Symbolically, nothing represents the bitter Palestinian reality under occupation more than the thousands of political prisoners languishing in Israeli jails. And nothing personifies the struggle for liberty more than the likes of Barghouti, who spent much of his adult life in an Israeli jail or in exile, including the past 19 years.

During the decades of the so-called “peace process”, the Palestinians were told to hold elections as a way to nurture democracy and pave the way for independence.

They did, but in return, they got more occupation, more illegal settlement, more repression and, yes, more division.

Indeed, after more than 70 years of occupation and dispossession, Palestine remains a prisoner of its Israeli jailor.

That is why in the absence of sovereignty and independence, holding elections in the shadow of occupation is no democracy; it is a contest among inmates over the management and, at best, improvement of their incarceration.

Hence, politically speaking, future elections should aim to overturn the status quo, not prolong it.

But that requires a new younger and bolder leadership to replace the old and jaded one that has failed to attain liberty and justice for the Palestinians.

If Barghouti and his multiplying supporters represent change, Abbas and his lieutenants have come to represent political stalemate and the marginalisation of the Palestinian question.

It is perhaps long overdue for Abbas to step aside, not only because of his old age and poor health, but also because his political and diplomatic project has reached a dead end.

It failed to achieve liberation and independence and failed to stop the illegal Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land from multiplying and expanding since Abbas signed the Oslo Accords in 1993.

He may be hopeful about reviving the “peace process”, with the advent of the Biden administration, but that lopsided process is destined to produce more political paralysis in the absence of a new popular strategy that pressures Israel to reconsider its position.

Diplomacy reflects the balance of power; it does not change it.

The tenacious Abbas may have done all he could, but he failed to safeguard Palestinian unity. It was under his watch that the Palestinians witnessed the worst, most violent split in their history after the 2006 elections, which resulted in Fatah ruling over the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas ruling over Gaza, until this day.

Last but not least, Abbas has already served 16 years as president, even though he was elected in 2005 for a four-year term only.

All of this begs the question: Why would the 85-year-old Abbas insist on running yet again, when more than a few younger and experienced Palestinians are ready and able to lead?

Clearly, the Palestinian political regime suffers from the same malady that has long plagued Arab regimes throughout the region. It is no coincidence Abbas has vehemently opposed the Arab Spring since its inception.

But unlike other Arab countries, Palestine suffers from both autocracy and dictatorship, otherwise known among Palestinians as Israeli settler colonial occupation.

This is why a change of leadership is urgent and the candidacy of a political prisoner like Barghouti is terribly attractive to so many Palestinians.

But what if Barghouti does run and win? How would he lead from an Israeli prison?

In terms of everyday life, it is the prime minister who is tasked with managing the Palestinian Authority, and Barghouti could appoint any one of the able Palestinian parliamentarians to lead his government.

In terms of the national cause, Israel, the US and others will eventually have to deal with him directly in prison, highlighting the harsh reality of the Palestinian cause, or be forced to release him, which would be a win for the Palestinians.

Palestinian consensus around their very own Nelson Mandela is sure to underline the unmistaken parallel with apartheid South Africa that a growing number of Israelis, Americans, and South Africans have already recognised.

In fact, apartheid was officially instituted in South Africa in 1948, the year Israel was founded on the ruins of Palestine. But when it was finally dismantled when Mandela became president in May 1994, apartheid took hold in Palestine, as Israel used the Oslo Accords of Palestinian “self-rule” to institutionalise segregation and divide Palestine into Bantustans, all “in the name of peace”.

Many Israelis believed in that sort of peace and may be indignant at the prospect of dealing with a political prisoner convicted, fairly or unfairly, on charges of masterminding attacks against Israelis.

But Israeli leaders know better. With so much Palestinian blood on their hands, they are the last to judge this freedom fighter for his record of resistance against the occupation.

For many years, apartheid South Africans also deemed Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) “terrorists” and saboteurs. Mandela himself was not taken off of the US “terrorism” watch list until 2008.

But when South Africa came under international pressure and its leader, President FW de Klerk, showed the necessary wisdom to release the ANC leader, Mandela became an acceptable and credible interlocutor overnight.

But it was not only Mandela: many freedom fighters, who were accused of terrorism for fighting colonialism, became respected statesmen after independence. Their worthiness was measured only by the worthiness of their cause.

Barghouti, who is fluent in Hebrew and even supported the Oslo Accords until he became disillusioned, just like Mandela, also believes in peaceful coexistence based on freedom, justice and equality.

The Palestinian people are ready to present the world with their own Mandela. But is the world ready to pressure Israel, as it pressured apartheid South Africa, to produce its own de Klerk?