International Left Rooting for Barghouti


Progressives of the world, including those in Israel, have a thing about Marwan Barghouti and with good reason: He’s so cool. He’s the coolest

Palestinian since Yasser Arafat first turned up in a keffiyeh and Ray Bans.

Journalist Patrick Bishop put it just right recently in England’s Daily Telegraph, writing Barghouti up as a celebrity revolutionary:

“Since first mentioned as a successor to Yasser Arafat, he has attracted extravagant comparisons from a world yearning for a visionary figure to break the deadlock in the Middle East. [Former British defense secretary] Michael Portillo described him as having ‘the charisma of Che Guevara’ and likened him to Nelson Mandela.”

And if that’s not enough, Shammai Leibowitz, grandson of Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz and a former Barghouti attorney, once argued in court for his client’s release by comparing him to Moses.

Barghouti, who last week took all the excitement out of the upcoming Palestinian election by withdrawing his candidacy, filled a huge gap for the international left when he fired up the intifada a little over four years ago. The international left — those who find it impossible to ever take sides with the West against the Third World — needed a symbol for one of their favorite romantic causes, the Palestinian national liberation movement, and what did they have? — old men; rich, corrupt, old men.

In the hard left’s good old days, the late ’60s to early ’70s, they had Arafat, Abu Jihad, George Habash, Naif Hawatmeh, Abu Nidal — guerrilla legends, men who ran revolutionary training camps in Africa, men who slept in a different safe house every night. But by the eve of the intifada, Abu Jihad was dead, Habash and Hawatmeh were effectively pensioners, Abu Nidal had become a crazed mercenary.

And Arafat? Arafat was a corrupt multibillionaire past 70, a caricature of a megalomaniacal dictator. He no longer looked like an outlaw, he looked like a leering old bum.

It had been a long, dry season without a Palestinian leader worth rooting for. Then along came Barghouti — or, as his admirers simply call him, Marwan. Beautiful name, isn’t it? Young, dark, fiery, charismatic Marwan.

He wasn’t corrupt nor even rich. Spoke Hebrew, English, loved to talk to the press. During the Oslo years, he hung out with Israeli peaceniks at the “dialogues” in Europe.

He was perfect: On the one hand, he was pure “street” — prison, exile, those Palestinian Shabiba kids he organized in the first intifada, Tanzim in the second. Authentic. On the other hand he had a master’s degree in international relations from Bir Zeit University, so, you know, he could talk the talk.

And look at the other alternatives for the post-Arafat leadership. Either they’re these hard-eyed ex-cons who look like backroom torturers, or they’re old men who look like corporate VPs. Compare Barghouti to the Palestinians’ bureaucrat-in-chief, as Bishop does in the Telegraph:

“Certainly he is a great deal more interesting than his rival in the succession stakes, Mahmoud Abbas, who critics say is more suit than man. Glamorous he is not.”

But glamorous Marwan is, and glamorous he will stay — as Israel’s No. 1 political prisoner, in the view of the pro-Palestinian left.

I, however, am not an international leftist but a Zionist leftist — someone who thinks that even though the Palestinians, politically, are a nasty piece of work, Israel still doesn’t have the right to rule them or their land — and so I have a very different view of Barghouti.

I remember seeing a clip of him sitting in the studio of a Palestinian TV station when one of his comrades from the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade called in to announce the latest “operation” in Jerusalem. Barghouti became absolutely buoyant over the news, full of praise and gratitude. This was March 2, 2002, and the “operation” was a suicide bombing in the middle of a Saturday night crowd in the haredi neighborhood of Beit Israel. Ten people were killed, including an 18-month-old girl and a 7-month-old boy.

It was Barghouti more than anyone, more than Arafat, who was identified with the outbreak of the intifada, with that explosion of rage and euphoria, of glorying in the spilling of blood. The Al Aqsa intifada made him.

And in those first days, while all Israeli believers in peace went into shock watching the future being wiped out, this fiery, charismatic SOB was triumphant.

As warlord of the West Bank, he more than anyone else was responsible for making the intifada what it’s been since Day 1 — a celebratory bloodletting. Not killing and self-sacrifice just as means to an end, but also as great deeds in themselves.

I don’t know Che Guevara’s history, but I know that Nelson Mandela, in his days as an insurgent, lived in a very distant moral universe from the one Barghouti inhabits. Mandela planned to sabotage installations, not to kill people — and the blacks of South Africa had a great deal more justification for violence than the Palestinians ever did. Mandela turned to violence only after South African blacks went decades asking the whites politely for equality. For Mandela at that time there was no South African Rabin, Peres or Barak, no Oslo accord, no Camp David negotiations. For Barghouti, there was, but — whatever he told his Israeli friends — he went for war instead. And with such enthusiasm.

The world’s hard-core leftists have always had a thing about fiery, charismatic types who kill for the oppressed. George Jackson, Huey Newton, the gunmen and bombers of the IRA, the Weather Underground, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Brigade.

They were all bloody-minded but cool. So now the international left loves Barghouti — what else is new?

Larry Derfner is The Journal’s Tel Aviv Correspondent