- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

JERUSALEM — A man seen by many Israelis as a cold-blooded terrorist who deserves to rot in his prison cell has emerged as a central figure in the cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.

Marwan Barghouti, whom Palestinians view as a hero of the resistance, is playing a key part in the attempt to end more than six years of violence — fueling speculation that he is one of the prisoners Israel may be willing to release.

A cell in the high-security block in Israel’s Hadarim Prison might not seem the best place from which to pull the many strings required to get Israelis and Palestinians talking again. But Barghouti, 47, who is serving five life sentences for his leading role in the second intifada, has been doing just that.

From his confinement, he has been attempting to stitch together the factions on the Palestinian street, where his popular authority far surpasses the sway of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party.

Sources in Israel’s dovish Meretz party say Barghouti has been in contact with Tel Aviv, conducting regular meetings with left-wing politician Haim Oron, with the blessing of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

For Mr. Olmert, any direct meeting with Barghouti — a man convicted of murdering Israelis — would be political suicide. Nonetheless, Israel’s intelligence services recognize that he is a talented and credible intermediary who — despite his crimes — might become a partner in peace talks.

“He certainly has the leadership skills to succeed Mahmoud Abbas,” said Yossi Alpher, a former senior official in Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, and a special adviser at the Camp David peace talks of 2000.

“He could be a more effective leader than Abbas. He is a very credible figure on the Palestinian side.”

Barghouti’s membership of the secular Fatah party is seen by Israel as crucial, giving him a platform from which to resist the increasing Islamist influence of the radical group Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections earlier this year.

Though he was named the leader of Fatah’s military wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, during the height of the intifada, he has denied dispatching suicide bombers to blow up Israeli bars and buses.

He has championed armed Palestinian “resistance” against Israeli soldiers occupying the West Bank, while condemning attacks on Israeli civilians, and even talked of Israeli and Palestinian states one day existing side by side.

“I, and the Fatah movement to which I belong, strongly oppose attacks and the targeting of civilians inside Israel, our future neighbor,” he noted shortly before being arrested by Israel in April 2002.

“[But] I reserve the right to protect myself, to resist the Israeli occupation of my country and to fight for my freedom.”

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