Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti said in an interview on Wednesday that he intends to run in the next Palestinian presidential election, and remarked that the abduction of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit by Gaza militants achieved what no negotiations could ever achieve.
Shalit was kidnapped in a cross border raid in 2006, and has been held prisoner by Hamas for over three years. Recent reports suggest that Israel and Hamas are closer than ever to reaching an agreement on a deal that would see hundreds of Palestinian prisoners released in exchange for Shalit’s freedom. It is unclear whether Barghouti will be among those prisoners, as he is currently serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in murderous terror attacks.
“Maybe Israel will finally understand that Hamas’ demands cannot be ignored,” Barghouti told the Milan-based Corriere Della Sera, adding that the main issue topping his agenda currently is achieving unity between rival Palestinian factions.
“Following a [unity] deal, I will be ready to submit my candidacy” for Palestinian president, he said.
Remarking on the Shalit prisoner exchange, Barghouti said “this time it is really happening, and some of the prisoners will finally be free.” He added that the capture of an Israeli soldier was directly responsible for progress that no dialogue has been able to achieve – the release of prisoners. “It appears that Israel had no choice but to yield to Hamas’ list of prisoners, of which I am one,” Barghouti told the newspaper, via his attorney.
If Barghouti is released in a prisoner exchange, it could have far-reaching strategic implications on internal Palestinian balance of power, and attempts to strike a peace deal with Israel.
Fatah officials say that Barghouti’s release could expedite the resignation of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, paving the way for Barghouti to assume the post.
Palestinian opinion polls show that Barghouti is extremely popular among the Palestinian public. Though Hamas is likely to gain popularity if it is able to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit, no single Hamas figure seems likely to defeat Barghouti in Palestinian elections.
It is safe to assume that many within Barghouti’s Fatah faction would be happy to see Barghouti stay under lock and key; many of them took part in the efforts to block his allies from gaining seats in the last party primary. But Barghouti opponents understand that it is important for Fatah to present a candidate capable of defeating Hamas, especially if the Shalit deal goes through.
Barghouti, who maintains exceptionally close relations with the Hamas leadership, has been trying to promote Palestinian unity for quite some time. In an interview from his prison cell last week, Barghouti voiced support for the idea of Palestinian “resistance” alongside peace negotiations with Israel.
Among Palestinians, the term “resistance” is an umbrella name for anything from terror attacks, which Barghouti has supported in the past, to non-violent demonstrations. In any event, it is clear that Barghouti has adopted a more hawkish line than Abbas.
Officials from the Palestinian Ministry for Prisoner Affairs convened in Jericho on Tuesday against the backdrop of a framed photograph of Barghouti hugging fellow prisoners from a range of Palestinian factions, among them Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine Secretary General Sadat and two senior Hamas officials. That is Barghouti’s way – putting Palestinian unity above peace talks considerations. This stance has proven popular with the Palestinian public and has bolstered Barghouti’s position as the prominent leadership candidate.
Barghouti’s wife, who attended the meeting, was even welcomed as “the next president’s wife.”
“I hope to see him soon,” she said, somewhat evasively. Those who have met with him recently say that Barghouti has accepted the challenge and is preparing himself for the political activity that will inevitably follow his release, should it come to pass.