Israeli officials continued their crackdown on Palestinian militants this week, including charging a top Palestinian leader with murder, while early elections suddenly loomed as a possibility and Haifa’s mayor announced his candidacy for the Labor Party leadership.
In an indictment unsealed Wednesday in Tel Aviv District Court, Marwan Barghouti, 43, who once was touted as a successor to Palestinian President Yasir Arafat, was branded an "arch-terrorist whose hands are bloodied by dozens of terror actions."
The indictment accused Barghouti of running the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade, the armed terrorist organization of Arafat’s Fatah movement, and charged him with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to murder and "activities in a terror organization."
Specifically, it linked him to 37 attacks on Israelis that killed 26 people and injured scores of others. More than 600 Israelis have been killed in 22 months of Palestinian violence.
The scruffy-looking Barghouti, who was arrested April 15 while hiding in a West Bank home, shouted to reporters after being led into the courtroom in handcuffs: "I was trying to do everything for peace between the two people. I do believe that the best solution for the two people is two states; there’s no other solution."
He also insisted that he was "fighting for peace" and vowed: "The uprising will be victorious."
Barghouti and his defense lawyers insisted that he was a political, not a military leader. In July 2001, he repeated the same line in an interview with The Jewish Week, but then defended the terrorist attacks on Israelis as reprisals for Palestinian deaths.
"What do you expect?" he asked rhetorically. "It is self-defense. … I don’t want to attack or kill anyone. We have entered a new era, but if you kill 600 of us and wound 3,000 and every day, every day, I go to funerals, what should I tell the people?"
Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the court would be presented documents to prove Barghouti "supported the wide network of terrorism" and was responsible for such attacks as one in Hadera at the bat mitzvah party of a 12-year-old.
Meanwhile, Israel continued to destroy the homes of Palestinian terrorists; by midweek 17 had been razed.
Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said the tactic already was working to abort terrorist attacks. He said the father of one would-be terrorist notified police before his son could act, and that another shot his son in the leg to prevent him from leaving the house.
Gold said Israel was aware of at least five attacks that were averted because of the demolition policy.
But another Israeli move: deporting to the Gaza Strip three family members of terrorists who abetted their activities, was put on hold by order of Israelís High Court of Justice. The court gave the government two weeks to justify the action.
Both the United States and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan expressed opposition to deportations. Palestinian militants vowed retaliation should the deportations occur. The Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade even threatened to attack the families of Israeli officials.
At the same time, Fatah and Hamas leaders met this week on the possibility of limiting terrorist attacks to Israeli soldiers and settlers. Contradictory statements were emerging from leaders on both sides.
Professor Matzia Baram, head of the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa, said the talks began after "Fatah people reached the conclusion that suicide bombing is detrimental to their cause. Such operations cause deep concern in the West, not because they love the Jews but because if it is happening so often over here, people might [emulate it] in Muslim communities in Europe. And Fatah people realized that gunning down people and explosions like the one at the Hebrew University give them bad press."
But he said because Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, it could not agree to limit attacks to the West Bank and Gaza because that would convey implicit recognition of Israel’s 1967 borders.
Fatah leaders attempted to resolve that problem by inserting in a draft agreement a sentence that said the armed struggle would continue in the future without any restrictions.
"It is still on the table and Hamas is hovering between saying yes and no," said Baram. "Almost all of those in the territories, those who are more involved in the apparatus of the attack and less attuned to international opinion, say no. The majority of the leadership wants to accept it, except for [Hamas spiritual leader] Sheik Ahmed Yasin.
"In Fatah you have a debate as well, but the majority are saying let’s stop it and continue attacks only in the territories."
Baram says the situation is complicated and it is difficult to say who will prevail.
"The most interesting thing," he said, "is that Arafat is irrelevant in this; nobody is asking him or consulting with him. Gradually people are distancing themselves from Arafat, and you have George W. Bush to thank for that."
In the meantime, Sharon announced this week that he was prepared to dissolve the Knesset and call for elections in January (almost a year ahead of time) if his budget is not supported by Labor and Shas Knesset members when they vote on it following the summer recess in mid-October.
That would mean a hurried campaign for Labor Party chairman, a post Ben-Eliezer now holds and would like to keep. Under Israel’s new voting system, the chairman of the party winning the most votes on Election Day becomes prime minister.
But Amram Mitzna, the mayor of Haifa, entered the race this week to challenge Ben-Eliezer and another Labor Party leader, Haim Ramon.
"Mitzna decided to declare his candidacy because he anticipates early elections and believes [Ben-Eliezer] would not be a good candidate to lead the party because he has been collaborating with Sharon all along," said Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
Gilboa said the best way for Labor to appear independent from Sharon’s coalition government is for new figures to emerge who have been opposed to the unity government and its policies.
"They would claim that they have a better chance to win than Ben-Eliezer because he can’t attack policies he was party to," said Gilboa.
Mitzna fits that bill, but so does Ramon. Gilboa said Ramon is the stronger of the two candidates.
"Mitzna made a big mistake this week by saying it is better to have a candidate without experience," Gilboa explained. "Ramon replied by saying how can a person who has never served in the Knesset or as a minister in government" become prime minister. Ramon has held both posts.
Gilboa said that although both Yitzchak Rabin and Ehud Barak became prime minister without political experience, both were war heroes who were able to sell themselves based upon Israel’s need for strong security.
But the Labor Party struggle may be academic because the latest polls show Likud handily beating Labor, winning 31 seats to Labor’s 19. Thus the real battle is likely to be between Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"Sharon believes that early elections will not permit Netanyahu time to get as organized as he would like to be," said Gilboa. "But it’s not yet clear the balance of power between the two."