Releasing Palestinian Prisoners should not be a Condition for Peace Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry, awakening to the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process needs a “reality check,” must now face the dilemma he has ignored. This is the result of the aggressive unilateral move by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in signing a set of 15 international conventions and agreements in defiance of Palestinian obligations not to take such action. No peace agreement is possible nor can be a Palestinian state be achieved by such unilateral actions.

Secretary Kerry can understand that Abbas, now in the tenth year of his four-year term of office as President of the Palestinian Authority, has been defying the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, and has been making any excuse to avoid the continuation of peace negotiations with the State of Israel.

At first that Palestinian excuse was based on refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish State, though UN General Assembly Resolution 181(II) of November 29, 1947, the partition resolution of which Abbas now approves, clearly calls for such a state as well as an “Arab state.” Then, it was a demand for all construction to end in Israel settlements, though the ten-month freeze in 2010 on such activity imposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not induce Abbas to start negotiations.

Now it is the release not only of the last batch, 26 in number, of Palestinian political prisoners agreed to by Israel, but also the release of Marwan Barghouti who is serving five life sentences for crimes of murder, as well as Ahmad Sa’adat, the secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was accused of ordering the assassination of the Israeli Tourist Minister in October 2001. 

The now 54-year-old Barghouti was convicted of being responsible for three attacks that killed Israelis: in June 2001 in the settlement town of Ma’ale Adumin; in January 2002 in Givat Ze’ev; and on March 5, 2002 the bombing by Tanzim in the Seafood Market in Tel Aviv that killed three and wounded fifteen.

Barghouti, reputed to be today the most popular Palestinian politician, was the leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a principal figure in both of the two Intifadas, and a founder of Tanzim, the armed branch of Fatah. He had been a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council since 1996, was reelected in 2006, and on that basis claimed diplomatic immunity from prosecution. 

On the basis of this claim Barghouti refused to defend himself at his trial, arguing that it was illegal and illegitimate. Others in the international community have sought to defend him, or call for his release. The most well-known group includes those who signed the Robben Island Declaration issued on October 28, 2013. This Declaration is a symbolic reference to Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 18 years on that island off the coast of South Africa, and indeed the ceremony of the signing took place in the prison cell he occupied.

The Declaration, organized by Ahmed Kathrada, a former fellow prisoner with Mandela, was signed by some of the usual anti-Israeli critics.  Let’s be reminded of a few of them. Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa has long referred to Israel as an apartheid state and urged boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Angela Davis, the well-known political activist, in recent speech in January 2014 in London called for assisting the Palestinians in their battle against Israeli apartheid and for expanding the boycotts. Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the Irish peace activist who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, has spoken of “Israeli ethnic cleansing against Palestinians.”

The views of the 84-year-old Kathrada about Israel are well known. In a letter of May 6, 2013 to the actor Morgan Freeman, urging him not to participate in a Hebrew University function in Toronto, he wrote, “The Palestinians are living under worse forms of colonial rule, under Israel as a Colonial power, ruling under permanent conditions of Martial Law. Israel is indeed an apartheid state. And in certain respects it is worse than (South African) apartheid.”

It is ironic that the Robben Island group in calling for the release of Barghouti, and all Palestinian political prisoners, is caught in their own bias and bigotry. In complete ignorance of the actual ability of Palestinians to express themselves freely politically and socially, the Robben Declaration speaks of the “deprivation of freedom that the Palestinian people have, and continue, to endure.”

Moreover, the Declaration speaks of “the treatment of Palestinian prisoners… violates norms and standards prescribed by International Law.” The signers seem to be totally unaware of Barghouti’s treatment. He has acknowledged in an interview posted on May 28, 2013 that he goes for an hour-long walk twice a day, that he reads four Israeli newspapers a day, that he is able to read 8-10 hours a day, that he reads 8 books a month, including Arab and international novels, that he watches television on 10 satellite channels, and sees his wife twice a month. While in prison he negotiated in June 2003 a truce between quarrelling militant Palestinian groups.  Do the bigoted critics of Israel call this a “violation of international law?”

Even more important, Barghouti has been able to issue political statements and give interviews, one of which was published in the Washington Post on the “ending of the Israeli Occupation.” In March 2012, he called for resistance against Israel and for the Arab nations to engage in a comprehensive boycott, political, economic, and diplomatic, of Israel. He urged resisting the occupation by all means and methods, and specifically for the Palestine Authority security services not to prevent terrorist attacks against Israel.  Most recently, on April 6, 2014 he issued a statement that the liberation of the (Palestinian) prisoners should be considered a core national priority of the march of resistance to the occupation.

If Barghouti, together with the fourth batch of prisoners, is released, he will almost certainly be chosen to replace Abbas as the next president of the Palestinian Authority and of the PLO.  His statements from prison imply that he is committed to a two-state solution, not a single, binational state, and to peaceful coexistence. He also seems to favor peaceful popular resistance rather than call for a Third Intifada. Perhaps this is true, but it is also possible that an image of Barghouti is being manufactured for popular international consumption. Already a number of towns in France, following a similar action toward Nelson Mandela, have granted Barghouti honorary citizenship. The growing parallel being made between Barghouti and Mandela appears to be an attempt to cast the future Palestinian leader as the symbol of civil rights rather than of one likely to ignite the role of the militant Al-Aqsa Brigades.

Whatever one makes of the sincerity of Barghouti’s statements in favor of a peaceful solution, and whether his behavior is really similar to that of Nelson Mandela in the transformation from militant and terrorist to advocate of coexistence with old opponents, his release should not be linked to the continuation of peace talks. It may well be that Mahmoud Abbas is in a wily way calling for the release of Barghouti for a political reason.  This is to prevent his great enemy Mohammed Dahlan, former Palestinian national security advisor and the man who Abbas has accused of poisoning Yasser Arafat, from succeeding him as president.  In any case, Barghouti’s release should not be linked to or made a condition for the continuation of peace negotiations. With or without his release, the Palestinians to show good faith must remain at the negotiating table.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.