Richard Cummings on a Barghouti - Pollard Swap:
A Quick Fix for a Broken Peace Process - PART II
Exclusive to IMRA - November 15, 2009
IMRA: Richard Cummings holds a Ph.D. in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University and is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. He taught international law at the Haile Selassie University. Prior to that he was attorney-adviser with the Office of General Counsel of the Near East South Asia region of U.S.A.I.D., where he was responsible for legal work in Israel, Jordan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is also the author of several novels. Cumming's essay on the logic and relevance of a Barghouti - Pollard swap as the most effective way to jumpstart the stalled Middle East peace process contains insights and an abundance of background information not readily available anywhere else in a single document. It is published in two parts; part 2 appears below.]
THE SWAP (Continued)
By Richard Cummings
PART II: BARGHOUTI, WYE & THE ONLY LOGICAL CONCLUSION
If Jonathan Pollard is Theodore Herzl's child, Marwan Barghouti is Franz Fanon's. A member of an important Palestinian family in Ramallah, Barghouti is the poster child of the resistance to the Israeli occupation. He is a proponent of armed struggle but also favors a negotiation with Israel to establish a separate Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with a right of return. As he famously said, "We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, and then seven years of negotiations without intifada; perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously."
Now in his forties, Barghouti was born near Ramallah. His father was a farmer. He was fifteen when he joined the Fatah movement, and was arrested and sent to prison for four and a half years for belonging to an illegal organization. Fatah is still listed by Israel as a terrorist organization, even as Israel is obliged to negotiate with Abbas and his Fatah cabinet, seeing Hamas as far worse. When he got out of prison, he attended Bir Zeit University and graduated with a B.A. in History and Political Science. The Israelis placed him under administrative detention in 1985 for six months and then deported him to Jordan in 1987 for inciting the Palestinian Intifada. From Amman, he became the central liaison officer between the PLO when it was in exile in Tunis and the Fatah movement in the West Bank. Not realizing it, Barghouti and Pollard intersected at this time when Pollard gave the Israelis the exact location of Arafat's headquarters in Tunisia so they could bomb it.
The Israelis allowed Barghouti to return to Ramallah in 1994 after the signing of the Oslo Accords and he was elected two years later to the new Palestinian Legislative Council. Because of his enthusiastic support of the Oslo peace process, he became one of the most popular Palestinian leaders perceived by the Israelis as "moderate " even as he fostered strong relations with key figures in the Israeli political elite. In 1998, Bir Zeit University awarded him an M.A. in international relations.
But Barghouti became disillusioned with the Oslo peace process because of his conclusion that the Israelis were dragging their feet and emerged as an outspoken proponent of a full fledged terror war against the Israeli occupation as well as a leader of the Al Aqsa Intifada. His call was to the Palestinians to escalate the Intifada to convince Israel that as long as it continued the occupation, there could be no peace. He founded Tanzim, a militant wing of Fatah seeking reforms in the Fatah organization to root out the corruption that plagued it and which ultimately led to Hamas electoral victory, followed by the civil war in Gaza that Hamas won. He alleged on his website that the Israelis attempted to assassinate him when a missile hit bodyguard's car, injuring him severely. In 2002, the Israeli army kidnapped him in Ramallah and held him in detention. Soon thereafter, Israel indicted him.
At the time of his arrest and during his trial, most Israelis were convinced that he had "betrayed" Israel by casting off his moderate stance. They looked upon him as a symbol of the failure of even moderate Palestinians to accept the generous terms that Ehud Barrack had offered Arafat at Camp David in 2000, as Clinton, racing against the clock, sought to get both sides to agree on a comprehensive settlement. The failure at Camp David ushered in the Al-Aqsa, or Second, Intifada and the belief amongst Israelis that they could not trust even the moderate Palestinians, who had supported the peace process, not to resort to violence. Their hope that a new local Palestinian leadership of educated, secular moderate leadership that was pragmatic was dashed, with Barghouti, who was seen as the symbol of that new leadership, now looked upon as a "traitor" for his role in the Al-Aqsa Intifada.
But to the Palestinians, Barghouti's actions were not illegitimate violence but rather the "armed struggle" that had been sanctioned by the United Nations General Assembly if directed against colonialism. They blamed collapse of Camp David on Barak and went ballistic when Ariel Sharon, in an act of provocation, had gone to the Temple Mount with an armed contingent to "pray." To Moslems, it is the Hara mesh-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, where the Dome of the Rock is located. It is the third holiest site in Islam and Sharon's actions were regarded as an arrogant display of Israel's intention of never relinquishing any part of Jerusalem.
But with the rise of Hamas, some Israeli commentators saw Barghouti's arrest and trial at a catastrophe for Israel. Shin Bet, the Israeli security service argued against a trial. Still, Israel persevered in its determination to imprison Barghouti for the rest of his life. The indictment charged him with twenty-six counts of murder and heading Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an armed offshoot of Fatah that had carried out several armed attacks against Israeli occupation forces. Barghouti's lawyers decided to challenge the jurisdiction of the court and not to offer a defense, instead having Barghouti address the court, challenging its right to try him. Speaking in Hebrew, a language in which he is fluent, having learned it during his time in various Israeli jails, he told the three-judge panel led by Judge Sarah Sirota, a former prosecutor, "I'm not a terrorist. I am a freedom fighter." Sirota shot back, "A soldier for peace doesn't turn people into bombs and kill women and children."
Sirota made several other inappropriate comments. "You don't act like a leader," she scolded the defendant, "You act like someone from the market place." And when he refused to accept a list of witnesses for the prosecution, she quipped, "Why say no? You can always doodle on it." Observing her conduct, Ha'aretz commentator Gideon Samet wrote, "By any standard, she deserves to be disqualified."
Another of Barghouti's' lawyers was Shamai Leibowitz, a human rights attorney from Tel Aviv, an observant Orthodox Jew and a defender of the "refusniks, " those Israel soldieries who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. He is also a grandson of the famous Jewish scholar, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz. In an outburst of indignation, Leibowitz compared Barghouti to Moses and the prosecution to Pharaoh and then gave Barghouti a "big fat kiss in public," wrote Samet. With typical Israeli hysteria, he was thrown out of his synagogue," The chief rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, refused to cancel the decree, proclaiming, " If someone defames Moses, you don't have to pray with him." Samet concluded: "And so it goes, with Barghouti dragging first his foes and then his defenders, into dark corners. If he goes to jail, he is sure to be released before his time is up, like many of those before him. Who will free the Jewish brain and the values it holds dear from its strangulation, self-imposed incarceration in the isolation cell of the territories."
On May 24, 2004, Barghouti was convicted of murdering five people, including a Greek Orthodox monk in a drive by shooting, and of attempted murder resulting from, a failed suicide car bomb attack although he was not at the scene of any of these crimes. The court acquitted him of all other charges, even though the media accused him of killing hundreds of Israelis. For each of the five murders, he was sentenced to life in prison, with the final sentence being five life terms plus forty years. The court relied to a considerable degree on Israeli intelligence reports rather than on direct evidence. Barghouti's lawyers challenged the accuracy of these reports.
While in jail and on trial, Barghouti managed to broker a cease-fire of the Intifada from his prison cell, something Abbas had been unable to do. He reportedly communicated with Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders in Syria and Lebanon via letter and through envoys. The three-month cease-fire specified that militant groups would halt "all attacks" against Israeli civilians. Some Israelis, including Yossi Sarid, formerly leader of Meretz, said that this was coordinated with Israel to bolster Barghouti's image "in order to strengthen his position" in the hope of promoting new Palestinian leadership.
According to Palestinian author and commentator Ramsy Baroud, Barghouti is secular, one of his main appeals to the Israelis, "but a member of the Palestinian left; he began his activism career as a member of the Shabbah group (the Fatah Youth Movement)" he explains. "Barghouti's ideals were anything but radical, revolutionary or extremist by any interpretation," he told me in an e-mail. "He was and remains a major advocate of the two state solution and strongly supported and defended the Oslo Accords until it proved to be a total failure, at least in practice." What Barghouti has going for him, is his street credibility, as someone who has been involved "hands on in resisting Israel and paying a heavy price for it years in jail, several assassination attempts and all the rest."
While Pollard insists "I am a pawn," some see Barghouti as even more than that in the new "great game." Tanya Reinhart, a peace activist, linguist and protégé of Noam Chomsky, writes: "While many view him as a national hero-a Mandela in the making-others wonder why he is the only Palestinian who has received the special treatment of being tried by a civilian (rather than a military) court, and who is allowed so much exposure, including openly running matters of Palestinian politics, while in jail." But since the prosecution alleged that Barghouti got his orders to commit terrorist acts from Arafat himself, Barghouti was, in fact, a pawn, since Israel considered itself unable to kidnap Arafat and indict him.
Many Palestinians are suspicious of Fatah because it tries to be both a militant opponent of Israel, while negotiating with it. As Baroud explains, "Basically Fatah wanted to have a share of both the Intifada and maintain its favored status with Israel." In explaining Barghouti's significance, Baroud says, "Barghouti is perhaps the most popular Fatah leader alive today; according to al Quds newspaper, he is ahead of Abbas in the opinion polls, although both of them hardly reach the popularity of Hamas' Haniyia.Naturally, Hamas wants Barghouti released, for he, unlike Abbas and his men is not seen as a tainted leader and most Palestinians respect him (keep in mind that according to the Palestinian cultural dialectics, spending time in Israeli jail serves like a validating process, that distinguishes between those who pay lip service to the struggle and those who are willing to back it up with action and indeed pay a price for it.)
In 2006, in the run-up to the Palestinians, the Israeli Prison Service was ordered by the political echelons to ease restrictions against Barghouti and to allow him to hold routine political meetings in jail. He won the Ramallah region primaries with ninety six percent of the vote, winning the top spot on the Fatah list for the general elections, but then Israeli Foreign Minister, Silvan Shalom said that Israel would never release Barghouti from prison. "We must not forget that he is a cold-blooded murderer who was sentenced by the court to five life sentences."
With Fatah uniting behind him, Barghouti, working with militant prisoners from all Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, drew up what became known as the Prisoners Document that served - at least for a while - as the basis for the coalition formed by Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas- the Palestinian Authority Chairman and Prime Minister respectively. According to the Jerusalem Post, "the 18-point document known as the National Reconciliation Document, calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, and stresses the right of return fort all refugees to their original home." The document also calls for the establishment of a new body to coordinate attacks on Israelis within the 1967 borders. Barghouti, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, explained how he was able to broker the deal to sign principles accepting establishment of Palestine on 1967 borders; the next step was to draft a peace plan and bring it to the Palestinian people's approval in a referendum. Speaking to the Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, Barghouti said, " I take part in the leadership. I was part of it before I was arrested. I am part of the leadership even when I am behind bars, and in the future, I will continue to be part of it."
Ynetnews.com reported that Barghouti receives direct reports on developments from President Abbas; office, and may have been given the authority to approve the declaration of principles negotiated by Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert for the international conference in Annapolis, Maryland called by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Contradicting Sylvan Shalom, Barghouti was quoted as saying, "I know that I will be released. It's just a matter of time."
On April 9, 2006, Israel broke ties with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority coalition government, deeming it "hostile." A week later, Israel Army Radio reported that a deal was in the works for a Pollard-Barghouti swap, indicating that the White House had accepted the deal. The timing was no accident. With Hamas in charge, the Peace Process was stalled for the indefinite future, exacerbating tensions throughout the Middle East, including Iraq. Increasingly, both America and Israel both began to see Barghouti was an indispensable asset in breaking the logjam. But as a Palestinian lawyer close to Barghouti's legal team and who wishes to remain anonymous told me, if Israel released Barghouti unilaterally, he would lose his credibility in the "Palestinian street." There had to be a way to release him in a way that made it look as though a serious price had been paid for it. And with Hamas unwilling to release the captive Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in any deal for Barghouti's release, Pollard remained the alternative. Israel wanted Pollard released and would pay the heavy price of releasing Barghouti to get him. And to those who argued that America would get nothing out of the swap, the answer was, it got Barghouti out, to be the next credible leader of the Palestinians who had the credibility to cut a deal with Israel. Barghouti was starting to look less like Mandela and more like Michael Collins, with Arafat playing the role of DeValera.
This was not the first time that Pollard had been used as a bargaining chip. During the negotiations over the Wye River Memorandum, brokered by the United States between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in October of 1998 and which was signed by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with President Bill Clinton playing a critical role, Clinton approached American Ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk and raised the issue of Jonathan Pollard. Indyk, suspecting that Netanyahu had brought up Pollard with Clinton, reminded Clinton that Rabin had asked for Pollard's release but that Clinton had not given him to Rabin. Clinton responded that what was fair did not matter, but whether they could get a deal.
The Wye agreement Clinton was pushing would give the Palestinians autonomy in Gaza and the West Bank in exchange for a pledge by the PLO to renounce terrorism and by Israel that there would be no further settlements in the occupied territories. Netanyahu was a hard-liner who had resisted any accommodation with the Palestinians, but has indicated a willingness to negotiate with PLO security chief Dahlan over the release of thirty Palestinian prisoners. Clinton asked his chief negotiator, Dennis Ross, whether releasing Pollard would help seal the deal. "Is it a big political issue in Israel? Will it help Bibi?" Clinton asked. Ross told Clinton that it was a big issue because Pollard was considered a "soldier for Israel" and that there was "an ethos in Israel that you never leave a soldier behind in the field." But if Clinton wanted Ross' advice, Ross told him, he should not release him now. "It would be a huge payoff for Bibi; you don't have many like this in your pocket. I would save it for permanent status. You will need it later, don't use it now." In a footnote to his memoir," The Missing Peace," Ross writes: "I also said I was in favor of his release, believing that he had received a harsher sentence than others who had committed comparable crimes. I preferred not tying his release to any agreement, but if that was what we were going to do, then I favored saving it for permanent status."
Clinton demurred. "I usually agree with you," he said, "but this stalemate has lasted so long that it has created a kind of constipation, Release it and a lot becomes possible. I don't think we should wait, and if Pollard is the key to getting it one now, we should do it."
But when George Tenet threatened to resign if Clinton released Pollard, Clinton, using this as a pretext, changed course, in effect, calling Netanyahu's bluff, on Ross' advice. Netanyahu later confirmed that Clinton had in fact offered to released Pollard, as did others at the negotiations, but Clinton continued to deny this. Netanyahu did release 700 Palestinian prisoners and granted Ghazi Jabal immunity from prosecution, but to no avail. In the end, Netanyahu backed down and signed the accord in exchange for a promise by Clinton to review Pollard's case. Sensing Clinton had betrayed him, Netanyahu continued to build settlements on the West Bank. The Al-Aqsa Intifada of 2,000, instigated by Marwan Barghouti, and the counter-attacks by the Israel Defense Forces caused the Wye River understandings and goals to remain un-implemented.
After this, the idea of a Pollard-Barghouti swap kept coming up. Ariel Sharon brought it up with Bush in 2004, and while there were reports that Bush had accepted the deal, Condoleezza Rice nixed the idea. Lecturing Israel's Ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, he told him, "Pollard's release is out of the question. Danny, I would advise you not to pursue this any further. Pollard betrayed his country and that issue is taboo in Washington." Just as Clinton had hid behind Tenet, Bush was now hiding behind Rice. But why was this the case? Dennis Ross suggests that there was suspicion that a not too subtle anti-Semitism was at work in Pollard's sentence and the refusal to release him. Had Pollard spied for a NATO ally, he asked, would Pollard have received the same treatment?
And while Olmert had previously stated that he would not release Barghouti, Aaron Klein reported on WorldNetDaily on June 25, 2007, that Israel would release Barghouti if the United States would free Pollard, writing that "some Israeli and U.S. officials believe Barghouti can strengthen Abbas' Fatah movement in both the West Bank and the Hamas-seized Gaza Strip," pointing out that "a large number of Fatah militants are loyal to Barghouti"
Amidst speculation that Israel is grooming Barghouti to take over the leadership of Fatah," the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, reported on July 9, 2007 that deputy defense minister, Ephraim Sneh, met with Barghouti in prison for almost two hours." And on September 28, 2007, Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer called for Barghouti's release of Barghouti from prison, telling Haaretz, "Marwan Barghouti is, in my opinion, the next leader of the Palestinians." Underscoring Barghouti's importance, Ben-Eliezer said, "In my opinion, there is a triangle here, whether or not we like to talk about it, that includes (President) Abu Mazen, (Prime Minister) Salem Fayyad and Marwan Barghouti No one should think that anything can happen without Barghouti Barghouti, in my estimation, is in fact, the tough side of the triangle, that wins a lot of respect, not only because of the fact that he is in prison, but rather because, as jargon has it, 'he is the cleanest of them all.' But you have to remember that we are also talking about a leader, who, even when he is a prisoner, should not be scorned and should be listened to. He is the only leader for whom Hamas maintains a great deal of respect, and I dare say there is even some awe of him in Hamas."
At a lunch and Q and A at the National Press Club, "Eye On Annapolis: Assessing the 2007 Annapolis Peace Talks, Shmuel Rosner, chief U.S. correspondent for Haaretz stated, "Israeli leaders see Barghouti as the next leader of the Palestinians and Fatah. The question is to release him now or later." And Tamara Cofman Wittes, Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the Director of the Middle East Democracy and Development Project concurs, affirming that "it would help to release Barghouti." Both are skeptical that America would release Pollard, with Wittes reiterating the much bandied-about but still unproven claim that "Pollard did too much damage to American security." Considering that Barghouti is serving five life sentences for murder and terrorism, her position would appear to be somewhat lopsided.
As for news reports about the swap itself, Esther Pollard statement to me in an e-mail that "this is not news. It is propaganda.The story, if you believe it, was 'leaked' to Ben Caspit of Maariv (who is one of the best-connected journalists in this country --a buddy of all the movers and shakers and always ready to do them a favor) to serve a number of goals; the first of which is to insulate Olmert et al who are working overtime in collusion with the Americans to release Barghouti. The Americans bet on the wrong horse (Abbas) and are as anxious as Olmert to release this mass murderer. Using Caspit to reveal that there was a deal to free Barghouti previously, which was originally conceived by Sharon (aka the great general and leader) no one can criticize Olmert for releasing a mass murderer The Barghouti issue and the Barghouti Pollard swap, a proposition we do not endorse, is a complicated one, and you really need to understand local politics (Arab and Israeli) to wend your way through all the calculated disinformation that is out there in the media. Things are never what they seem. A great deal of caution is needed."
United States Ambassador to Israel Richard Jones, in an address at Bar Ilan University in May of 2007, insisted that America would not release Pollard. He declared that fact that Pollard wasn't executed is the mercy that Jonathan Pollard will receive." After a storm of protest, Jones apologized, saying his words reflected neither his personal views nor those of the Bush administration. He added, "I certainly do not believe that Mr. Pollard should have received capital punishment and I was appalled to learn that I had given that impression." Whether this statement reflected the possibility that Bush was considering going ahead with the swap at that time is uncertain. Some Israeli officials are convinced that these deeply inflammatory remarks were designed to drive up Pollard's currency as a bargaining chip opposite Barghouti and others.
Writing in his column in The New York Times, David Brooks observes, "It is slightly unfortunate that the peace process itself is hollow. It's like a wedding without a couple because you want to get the guests together for some other purposeThere is remarkably little substance to it. Even people inside the Israeli and Palestinian governments are not sure what's actually going to be negotiated and what can realistically be achieved." With both Abbas and Netanyahu in extremely weak positions in their own camps, the stark reality is that Barghouti remains indispensable to any solution, and there can be no legitimate releasing of him without the release of Pollard.
After years of cover-ups and denials, Israel finally officially acknowledged in 1998 that Pollard was officially working for them. Now that he is an Israeli citizen, his release would be easier to rationalize. This would no longer be the release of an American who betrayed his country, but of an Israeli acting at the behest of his country.
On Friday, September 21, 2007, Barghouti gave an interview in Hebrew through questions submitted to the Yediot Ahronot Weekly Magazine, which was translated for me by a volunteer. In it, he explained his role in working for solutions to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian impasses. Lest anyone think he is sympathetic to Hamas, Barghouti points out that he was one of the authors of the Mecca Agreement between Abu Mazen (Abbas) and Khaled Meshal that was to end Hamas' control over the Gaza Strip and recently participated in the formation of the emergency government headed by Dr. Salam Fayyad. Incensed by the Hamas coup in Gaza, Barghouti said, "Hamas stabbed the Palestinian people in the back. Hamas' coup over the legitimate authority of Abu Mazen was a big strategic error that destroyed all possibility for cooperation with FatahThe responsibility for a divided Palestinian people rests entirely with Hamas. It is necessary to undo these measures and restore legitimate authority with Abu Mazen before there is any dialogue."
Barghouti had once cooperated with Hamas and believed in the slogan, "Partners in blood, partners in decision making." He now says, referring to the coup, that "this is a knife stab to partnership in the struggle and democratic partnership and national unity. This is incredibly painful and difficult and it is not just Hamas that will suffer but the Palestinian people and their unity. This has turned into a disaster for the Palestinian cause."
As a measure of Barghouti's prestige, Hamas on the West Bank has repeatedly resumed negotiations with Abbas to resolve the crisis, with intensive Egyptian mediation, but ultimately to no avail.
Seeing Barghouti as indispensable, Yuival Diskin, head of Shabak, has acknowledged that Barghouti has played a moderating voice from Prison. "I have met with him and he is not a lover of Israel-and no one expects this of him," Diskin says," but I think that if they release him, he will support opposition to Hamas. I was in the minority asking for his release without any result becausethe government and even Abu Mazen doesn't believe that he will oppose Hamas." Barghouti retorts: "I am not in anybody's pocket. I was not in Arafat's pocket nor will I be in Abu Mazen's pocket. I am in the pocket of the Palestinian people. I am convinced that the generation that grew up under Israeli occupation, that participated in the first and second intifadas, that can understand the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the individuals who lead."
In the most recent Fatah faction elections in August of this year, Marwan Barghouti was elected to the Fatah Central Committee. The decision was announced at Fatah's sixth conference in Bethlehem. Also elected were Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan. Not making the list was former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who also served as head negotiator between the PA and Israel. None of these enjoy the strong popular support that Barghouti commands. Now that Mahmoud Abbas has called for new elections for the PA in the coming year and confirmed that he does not intend to run for another term, most pundits point to Barghouti as his natural successor.
Indeed Barghouti, himself, has announced he plans to run for president of the PA from prison if he is not released before. He opines that "It is not comfortable for Israeli authorities to see a new Palestinian leader imprisoned in an Israeli prison: It will embarrassing for Israel" He sees his election as president as the only way to resolve the crisis of the Fatah-Hamas split and the coup in Gaza. Regarding organized negotiations between the PA and Israel, Barghouti is quoted, "I say, with honesty, that the Palestinian people can no longer tolerate conferences and international committees that simply make us lose hope and confidence in the peace process For this reason, it is necessary for Palestinians to place as a condition on their participation the reaching of a real political [solution] and not just statements and speeches that just waste time. In principle, I support participating in all conferences that will advance Palestinian interests. The success or failure of any conference, in my point of view is a question of whether it will lead to an end to the occupation. To the present day, in spite of the willingness to attend a Washington conference, all indicators are that the Israeli government is headed in the opposite direction: the Israeli forces have not withdrawn from the West Bank towns and cities; they have not stopped their assassinations and imprisonments and they continue to invade Palestinian cities; they have not removed their check points; the Palestinian prisoners number 11,000 and the Israeli government announces day and night their desire to help Abu Mazen and Salam Fayyad, yet on the ground they do the opposite. Instead of helping them, they do the opposite."
And while a very modest degree of progress was possibly made at the last major peace conference orchestrated by the US at Annapolis in November 2007, by virtue of the vague general statement by Abbas and Olmert and the scheduling of meetings after it, ever since Prime Minister Netanyahu took office last March, the entire peace process has become bogged down and ground to a complete halt. Yediot Ahronot reports that " even the U.S. Secretary of State, is now convinced that Barghouti is needed to support Abu Mazen's position and the request for his release sits on the prime minister's desk."
Unlike other possible initiatives that require considerable lead times, a Barghouti-Pollard trade could be executed in a number of days if the parties agree. The paperwork (the Pollard Clemency petition which was filed last year) is already in place for President Obama to release Pollard without any further notice. In Israel, President Peres can do the same for Barghouti in short order.
IT would be an unprecedented American gesture of support to PA. The prisoner-sensitive Palestinian street will appreciate that the American release of Pollard in exchange for Barghouti constitutes an American sacrifice of a magnitude far beyond anything the United States has ever made to date for the benefit of the Palestinians.
Moreover Palestinian moderates would gain at the expense of Hamas extremists. The successful Barghouti-Pollard trade would be seen as an obvious and self-evident success in contrast to the failed negotiations with Hamas over a Shalit-for-terrorists swap.
In terms of the peace process, the release of Barghouti within the framework of a deal with the United States would have a profound impact on the Netanyahu administration's willingness and ability to interact with him. Barghouti has brokered deals with Israel in the past and could be a significant mitigating factor between Hamas on the one hand, and the moribund P.A. leadership on the other.
During his election campaign, Barack Obama pledged to have Pollard released. This would give him the perfect reason to do so, now that Abbas has indicated that he doesn't wish to serve as president of the PA any longer.
For their part, the PA leadership could cite the PA's successful release of Barghouti to justify any future bold moves afterwards - even to justify a decision to restart talks despite Netanyahu's refusal to publicly accept a blanket freeze of all building in the territories.
In sum, there is one simple gesture that President Obama could make to revitalize the stalled peace process that would speak to the Palestinian street and bring great honor to Mahmoud Abbas: freeing the ever-popular strongman, Marwan Barghouti. In practical terms there is only one way that President Obama can bring about the immediate release of Barghouti as a gesture of support for Abbas: swap Jonathan Pollard for Barghouti.
There are no restraints to impede Obama from exercising his unlimited powers of presidential clemency to make this magnanimous gesture in order to restart negotiations between the PA and Israel. Pollard's clemency papers are sitting on Obama's desk. With one stroke of his pen, both Pollard and Barghouti go free.
It's an offer Israel cannot refuse.
See Also: Part I: Richard Cummings on a Barghouti - Pollard Swap: A Quick Fix For A Broken Peace Process