During an interview with host Larry King on CNN last night, James. A Baker, the former U.S. secretary of state, who currently serves as the Bush administration’s special envoy on Iraqi debt, called on the Israeli government to release Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Palestinian leader who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail for ordering attacks against Israel.
Israel has ruled out any early release for the popular Barghouti, often mentioned as a successor to Yasir Arafat, who died on Thursday. Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom was quoted yesterday saying that Barghouti would remain in prison until “the last days of his life.”
At Arafat’s funeral in Ramallah this morning, many of his supporters were seen holding a picture of Arafat, who in turn is holding up a picture of Barghouti.
Baker served as secretary of state, and then chief of staff under George H.W. Bush, and had a pivotal role convening the Madrid Conference in 1991, a precursor to negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians during the last decade. Baker also served as a legal advisor to George W. Bush’s campaign during the recount of votes in Florida after the contested 2000 presidential election.
“There is now. . . . in an Israeli prison a man named Marwan Barghouti, who is one of the young guard of Palestinians,” Baker told King last night, speaking about the post–Yasir Arafat era. “And if the Palestinians are going to make this work against the really hard-line elements, the Islamists and some of the people of Hamas, they’re going to have to have a coalition of the young guard and the old guard.”
Baker continued, “[I]t would be really a very positive step in the right direction if Israel would release Marwan Barghouti so that he could participate in bringing about this transition.”
Barghouti, a longtime member of Arafat’s Fatah faction, spent years in Israeli jails, and had roles in both of the Palestinian uprisings. Known among Palestinians as a homegrown leader—just 45, he spent most of his life in the West Bank, apart from several years exiled in Jordan—he was also a critic of corruption in the Palestinian Authority.
Barghouti’s trial after his arrest in 2002 was a media event, and he worked to make it his own indictment of the Israeli occupation. He called the court illegitimate, with no jurisdiction to try him. “This occupation is dying,” he said at his sentencing. “They had better start preparing its funeral.”