Barghouti release would likely be bad news for Abbas

Palestinian demonstration for the release of prisoners, Ofer military prison (photo: Activestills)
Palestinian demonstration for the release of prisoners, Ofer military prison (photo: Activestills)

Update, midnight [Israel time]: Emerging reports suggest that Barghouti will not be among those released. Stay tuned for updates.

As of writing, it’s been one hour since the Israelis and Palestinians announced a deal on the release of Gilad Shalit and a thousand-plus Palestinian prisoners. And so far, there’s been no response from the Fatah leader, PLO Chairman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbbas. Perhaps his silence is appropriate. He exerts little-to-no control over the Gaza Strip, where the French-Israeli corporal has been held for half a decade. Nor does he exert any control over the body that governs the territory.

What is clear is that if the cameras were turned to Abbas, they’d probably see an unsettled man. Why? Not because he doesn’t want Shalit released. But rather because Abbas will probably emerge as the weakest party in this whole deal. Netanyahu will show that he is though because he was able to secure a homecoming from Shalit, as he promised. Hamas will show that it is tough because it was able to successfully release one-thousand prisoners from Israeli jail. And Abbas? What does he have to show for? Statehood? Not quite.

Worse yet for Abbas, the preliminary reports suggest that Marwan Barghouti will be among those released. Barghouti is considered one of the key choreographers of the First and Second Intifadas against Israel. His is literally a child of the Fatah party, having served as a co-founder of its youth wing, Shabiba. He’s been influential in Fatah’s politics for years, even from behind Israeli prison bars. Hamas has always demanded Barghouti’s release. And Israel feared doing so would essentially make a hero out of him a la Nelson Mandela. (One a number of occasions, Israeli left-wing activist Uri Avnery referred to him as the Palestinian Mandela.)

So what changed?

Binyamin Netanyahu made it very clear that he will punished Abbas for pursuing his goal of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly in September. Abbas essentially embarrassed Netanyahu in the international arena, and Netanyahu vowed to make him pay for it. This might be a political “price tag” for last month’s actions. Or it might just good negotiating and mediating. Either way, Abbas is not likely to survive the challenges he’ll ultimately face from Barghouti.