Once again, the name of Marwan Barghouti, the Fatah leader who is serving life sentences in Israeli prisons, has returned to the Palestinian political arena. This comes after the revelation that Hamas is exchanging messages with him regarding the upcoming elections, to ally with him, which causes President Mahmoud Abbas fearful of announcing the date of the election.
While Fatah circles confirmed that Abbas sent one of his advisers to meet Barghouti in the Israeli prison, asking him to give up his upcoming candidacy for the presidential elections, in exchange for his appointment as head of the Fatah list in the legislative elections, but the latter rejected the proposal because his eye is on running in the presidential elections.
It is clear that the PA is afraid to announce the elections because of the strength of Hamas on the one hand, and the possibility of its alliance with other Fatah leaders on the other, namely Barghouti, who Israel has so far refused to release as part of a prisoner exchange deal that it may reach with Hamas. This is despite regional and international mediators held separate talks with Hamas and Israel to prepare for a prisoner exchange deal, in which Hamas secures Barghouti’s release.
In the latest news, without an official announcement from Hamas, we have heard that its leadership recently exchanged messages with Barghouti about the upcoming elections and the possibility of an alliance with him in the presidential and legislative elections. Hamas’s messages reached Barghouti in the Israeli prison through a lawyer who visits him. He then reads the message and answers, while the lawyer writes his statements, and the lawyer delivers the message after leaving the prison to someone who delivers it to the Hamas leadership in secret.
In this case, the chances of others winning the elections will be slim, as Barghouti is very popular in the Palestinian street, and is highly regarded by Hamas cadres and supporters.
The last Palestinian opinion poll in December 2019 revealed that if new presidential elections were held, and Abbas did not run in them, and if the competition were limited to Barghouti and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the former would receive 62 per cent and the latter 34 per cent.
It is worth noting that if Barghouti is released from the Israeli prison, or if he runs in the presidential elections, if they are held, it would be a nightmare for many influential Fatah leaders surrounding President Abbas, such as Major General Majid Faraj, head of the General Intelligence Service, and Hussein Al-Sheikh, member of the Central Committee for Fatah and the Minister of Civil Affairs. They are preparing their agendas for a battle over succession Abbas.
However, Jibril Rajoub, the former commander of the Preventive Security Force, and the secretary of the Fatah Central Committee, who reconciled with Cairo a while ago, recently met Egyptian officials, informing them of his support and welcoming of Barghouti’s candidacy as a consensus figure in the movement. This is contrary to his previous position. He also took initiative and contacted Barghouti in prison, visiting him several times.
Barghouti has turned 60 years old and is marking his 18th year in prison, since 2002. He is a member of the Fatah Central Committee in Ramallah. In 2004, he was sentenced to five death sentences for his involvement in the armed attacks carried out by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades against the Israelis in the second intifada after 2000.
He was nominated in 2004 for the past presidential elections held in 2005 after received several appeals and demands from Fatah organisational bases to nominate himself in order to pressure the Israeli authorities to release him if he won those elections. However, Fatah leadership mediators convinced him to withdraw his candidacy so that President Abbas can win comfortably, without competition.
Barghouti has a broad support base from Fatah leaders in the West Bank, such as Muhammad Al-Hourani, Qaddura Faris, Ahmed Ghoneim, and Jamal Huwail, and in Gaza, Fatah leader, Muhammad Dahlan, is considered one of his most prominent allies. He met with him in Israel’s Hadarim prison in 2011 for four hours, and they agreed on the arrangements for nominating Barghouti for the PA presidential elections.
No one knows when the Palestinian presidential elections might take place, in light of Abbas’s reluctance to hold them for fear of several factors. Although, what is new about the potential for Barghouti running for the presidential elections is the emergence of large Fatah voices that support him, as his chances increase if Abbas does not nominate himself again.
In light of Marwan’s possession of a militant record, his name was repeated in international forums, and the opportunity for him to run for the presidential elections has grown. Perhaps his possession of a wide national relations network in the Palestinian arena encourages the possibility of his nomination by the Fatah leadership, despite the severe polarisation within the organisation.
It seemed interesting that Egypt showed great desire to release Barghouti and include it in any upcoming prisoner exchange deal, given that the Palestinian Authority did not make sufficient efforts to release him at the international and regional levels.
It is striking in recent days that, with the start of the Palestinian political movement around the elections, large Fatah figures began holding meetings with Egyptian officials, with the aim of asking them to pressure Israel to include Barghouti in any future exchange deal with Hamas. This is in coincidence with his announcement of his intention to run for the presidential elections, despite Abbas meeting with his wife at the end of December and sending a message in the opposite direction.
Barghouti has consistently called for direct communication between the Fatah Central Committee and the Hamas Political Bureau, holding a national conference for them, dividing the powers between the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, and adhering to the option of comprehensive resistance, choosing the appropriate method for each stage.
While Hamas leaders are not hesitant to state that they have good and positive relations with Barghouti, and that they have contact with him in various ways. They have also stated they are concerned with maintaining the most agreement with him on the future of the Palestinian cause and ways to confront the Israeli occupation.
Israeli political circles talked years ago about a plan between Barghouti and Hamas to confront Israel on the day following Abbas’s absence, by blocking Israelis from reaching their settlements in the West Bank by forming Palestinian human shields and damaging the water, electricity, and internet networks in the settlements, as well as adopting unarmed resistance.
Barghouti urged Abbas, in an open letter, to stop the series of sanctions he has been imposing on the Gaza Strip since 2017 to pressure Hamas. He also stressed that the Palestinians do not need new divisions, which is public opposition from him to Abbas’s decisions against Gaza, such as employee salary deductions and to stop supporting Gaza’s supply of electricity.
This means that the two men’s disagreement has come to the surface after Abbas dismissed Barghouti as deputy leader of Fatah and relieved him of any organisational duties. This is despite the fact that Barghouti obtained the highest percentage of votes in the internal Fatah elections that took place during the seventh Fatah conference in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian prisoners’ strike in 2018 revealed something that has been hidden for many years regarding the raging dispute between Abbas and Barghouti, which casts a shadow over the extent of Fatah’s cohesion or decay.
It is important to mention that Barghouti’s candidacy in the presidential elections is reliant on his compatibility with Western countries and Israel, and Israel will not release him unless it is in its interest. If Israel does release him and he runs for the presidency, the Palestinians may consider him Israel’s option, and this is a weakness for him, despite possessing a large network of Palestinian relations, including Hamas and Dahlan.
Barghouti’s chances of being the favourite in the Palestinian presidential elections are better if the elections are held after interest in him goes beyond the Palestinian level and reaches regional and international levels. He may then become the choice of these parties. His chances of winning may also increase if he announces his commitment to the peace process with Israel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.