- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Marwan Barghouti isn't exactly a household name in this country, but Israelis know it well. He's a leading Palestinian politician with a distinguished resume, including enough time in Israeli prisons to speak good Hebrew. He was once the bright hope of both Israelis and Palestinians, a charismatic orator who was going to succeed Yasser Arafat and bring the Oslo peace accords to happy fruition.

Well, we all know how that turned out. The Oslo Accords proved a Trojan Horse. The hopes for peace it roused, like Palestinian headquarters in Ramallah, have been reduced to ruins after two years of terrorism largely organized by, yes, this selfsame Marwan Barghouti. He now finds himself under arrest, and on trial in a Jerusalem courtroom for attacks that claimed the lives of some two dozen innocent victims of various ages, creeds and nationalities.

Mr. Barghouti hopes to turn the tables on the prosecution, denying the court's jurisdiction, shouting slogans, claiming immunity as an elected member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and generally employing his considerable rhetorical skills.

With all eyes in the court focused on the charismatic defendant, those who died in the wave of carnage he unleashed have tended to slip into anonymity. As victims do. He's the one in spotlight; they are but a memory.

But as it turns out, Marwan Barghouti isn't the only one shouting in court. Now and then a cry will erupt from the spectators' seats. The other day a man who lost two children in a terrorist attack arose and yelled back at Mr. Barghouti: "You are a murderer."

Rejecting that job description, Mr. Barghouti contends he's only a political leader seeking peace between two warring peoples, and claims parliamentary immunity. When the presiding judge, Sarah Zerota, noted that "fighters for peace don't plant bombs," Mr. Barghouti replied: "I don't want to get into that."

Of course not. Then he might have to consider a long list of victims from Avia Malka, 9 months old, who was blown apart in a grenade attack on the Netanya Hotel March 9, to Father Georgios Tsibouktzakis, a Greek Orthodox monk gunned down while driving outside Jerusalem on June 12, 2001. And so many others.

From the shadows, their faces still call, much to Mr. Barghouti's annoyance. And despite his protestations, the court has found no parliamentary immunity for murder.

Marwan Barghouti is not the only prisoner of the choices he has made. The Palestinians' embattled chieftain, Yasser Arafat, appears locked into his physical ailments, and, far more paralyzing, his devious ways. Not even his legislature trusts him anymore. For the first time, his rubber-stamp parliament has balked at his one-man rule. Last week it refused to approve his Cabinet, which resigned en masse rather than risk a vote of no-confidence.

The chairman-for-life is proceeding to rig the coming Palestinian election, just as he did the last one, but no one is paying much attention anymore to the Elected Leader of the Palestinian People, including the Palestinian people.

If only Yasser Arafat had chosen a different course two years ago, taken up the Israelis' sweeping offer at Camp David, or even negotiated a better one, there might be a Palestinian state today with its capital in Jerusalem and Yasser Arafat at its head. But it was not to be. He would not let it be. He couldn't stop being Yasser Arafat. To make peace, he would have had to confront his crazies instead of using them in one, final attempt to destroy the enemy. He couldn't resist the temptation; he never could.

Unfortunately, Yasser Arafat isn't the only one who has had to face the consequences of his choices. He has led a whole people into catastrophe. That's what the Arabs call the first Arab-Israeli War al-Nakbah, the Catastrophe. Now they are in the midst of Catastrophe II, still imprisoned by their leadership and blinded by their own rage.

The forced resignation of Yasser Arafat's whole Cabinet is a hopeful sign. It would be nice if it marked a turning point. But one suspects nothing will really change. Soon enough there will be more empty speeches, more meaningless demonstrations and another staged plebiscite. The witness of the dead will fade, the United Nations will jabber and the old road to catastrophe will beckon again. That's the Middle East. Now if Yasser Arafat would resign .


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