The name Marwan Barghouti is much in the news these days. The charismatic Palestinian, now locked up in an Israeli jail, is the only serious candidate for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority to challenge the front-runner, Mahmoud Abbas. Originally Barghouti said he would not run and many, including the Israelis, the Bush administration, and most of the older Palestinians, breathed a sigh of relief. Abbas the peacemaker, Barghouti the young firebrand associated with Fatah and terrorist acts against Israel. Which of these two could better manage the transition from the dead-end leadership of the late (and still lamented) Arafat? Which one could work out some reasonable arrangement with the Israelis? It seemed to many like a no-brainer.

But Barghouti has thrown his hat in the ring and the latest polls suggest he is in a dead heat, vote-wise, with Abbas. There is hand-wringing in the corridors of power. But hold on, everyone, let’s think this through.

First, there is the generational aspect. Marwan belongs to and represents the younger generation, Abbas the older generation, the established political elite. Demographically, the youth of Palestine vastly outnumber the old folks who can remember back to the good old days. The young have grown up with a different world view. It’s a generational thing, sharper than any generation gap we in the West have ever experienced. Of course, this being politics, there are many other fracture lines dividing the Palestinians, but this generational divide is supremely important. And the terrorists are all young people.

Second, noone suspects Barghouti of being a collaborator, or a pushover when it comes to facing up to Israel. The fact he is in jail is the best credential he could have to prove he is an authentic representative of his constituency’s deepest aspirations. Please note that for a generation after the British Raj left India, politicians aspiring to high office almost always advertised their records of having done time in a British gaol, as the best and surest way of establishing their bona fides. It’s human nature, an enduring aspect of the process of emerging from colonial rule.

I have read a lot of good reporting on the latest developments, and am impressed by how complex, how Byzantine, the current negotiations are. I cannot parse them out for you here for I simply don’t know enough. From my distance, however, a conclusion emerges that is evidently not equally apparent to most of the observers whose analyses have informed me:

We simply must do everything we can to ensure that the upcoming electoral contest between Abbas and Barghouti is a fair one, not rigged. Whatever the outcome, all concerned parties, not least the Palestinians themselves, need to know that the proclaimed winner actually garnered the most votes. If Abbas wins, so be it. Give him a chance to work with the Israelis and see what he can accomplish. Barghouti’s time will almost certainly come later on, unless the situation gets catastrophically worse.

And if Barghouti wins, so be it. Personally, I think he will have a better chance of cutting a deal with Israel and making it stick than Abbas will, because he is more likely to be able to make the youth of his country hold their fire. He will start with an aura of legitimacy, while if Abbas wins he will have to prove himself.

Needless to say, this moment puts Israel to the test. If the present government wants peace more than it wants to absorb the whole West Bank, now will be the time to show it. It will have many opportunities to either help or confound the whole electoral process, including whether it keeps Barghouti in jail or lets him go. Those outsiders who genuinely want justice as well as peace in the Holy Land will be watching carefully. I very much hope the Bush administration will also play an active and constructive role.

Carl Coon 12/7/04

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