Mahmoud Abbas’s home in Ramallah is a palatial villa spread on a hillside. Marwan Barghouti’s is a second-floor flat in a six-story apartment block overhanging a gorge. It is not the only contrast between the two men, who until Barghouti’s recent withdrawal from the race for the Palestinian presidential elections on January 9 were seen by Palestinians as the only real heirs to Yasir Arafat.
Ever since he was anointed official candidate by Arafat’s Fatah movement, Abbas (a k a Abu Mazen) has been treated as president-elect. Outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell and a string of other foreign dignitaries have visited him, eager to capitalize on the “new opportunity” afforded by Arafat’s death and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw unilaterally from most of the occupied Gaza Strip and dismantle four small Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank.
Unlike his predecessor, Abbas has been allowed to travel, trying to thaw the frigid relations between the Palestinian Authority and Arab countries like Syria and Kuwait, still smarting from Arafat’s decision to side with Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War.
Barghouti has been in jail, serving several life sentences for what Israel charges was his role in attacks that left four Israeli civilians and a Greek monk dead. For twenty-three hours of every day he is in a solitary cell, with one hour for exercise. December 1 was the first time his wife, Fadwa, had been allowed to see him since his arrest in April 2002.
In the space of one month Barghouti submitted his presidential candidacy twice–only to withdraw twice. His final change of heart came on December 12, when he endorsed Abbas “out of the higher national interests of the Palestinian people.”
Perhaps. But Barghouti’s on-again, off-again candidacy says much about the current state of Fatah, the leading Palestinian national movement, and the forces that will shape it as it steps, gingerly, into a post-Arafat world. It says even more about a new Palestinian mood in the occupied territories that–after the trauma of Arafat’s death and four punishing years of armed revolt–is seeking unity rather than division, moderation rather than radicalism and peace rather than war, especially among Palestinians.
It was a different reality that, over the past decade of peace and then war, had nurtured Barghouti as the most inspiring leader of Fatah’s so-called “insider” leadership: activists native to the West Bank and Gaza who came to the fore in the first and second Palestinian intifadas but who are underrepresented in Fatah’s leadership institutions. Their main Palestinian adversary is the “outsiders,” Fatah officials who returned with Arafat from exile in the 1990s and derived their legitimacy from him but who are widely charged with malfeasance in government and inadequacy in the national struggle against Israel.