- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 6, 2009

TEL AVIV | Amid swirling speculation about an imminent Israel-Hamas prisoner swap, the possible release of Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti could change the political dynamic in stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

More than any other of the hundreds of Palestinians that are expected to be freed by Israel in return for Sgt. Gilad Shalit after three years of captivity in Gaza, the possibility of a Barghouti release carries political repercussions beyond the actual swap.

A proponent of the militarization of the Palestinian uprising that broke out in late 2000, Barghouti was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2004 on five counts of murder, including a shooting attack on a Tel Aviv restaurant.

But Barghouti also supports a two-state compromise with Israel and is a Hebrew-speaking, charismatic warrior-statesman with public opinion ratings among Palestinians that rival Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Some say Barghouti could succeed Mr. Abbas, unify the Palestinians and provide Israel with the powerful partner it has lacked since the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004.

Securing his release, however, would also give Hamas a political boost at a time when the Islamic militants’ popularity has sagged over the ongoing isolation and economic deterioration of Gaza.

“Hamas will not release Shalit unless Marwan is included,” said Nashat Aqtash, a former campaign adviser to Hamas candidates in the 2006 parliamentary election that Hamas won. “The Palestinian public is expecting Marwan to be released.”

“Hamas doesn’t want to be seen as interested in just their own prisoners. They want to be seen as releasing prisoners from all factions. They want to release heavyweight prisoners like Barghouti,” Mr. Aqtash said.

The other high-profile, non-Hamas prisoners mentioned in media speculation on the deal is Ahmed Saadat, who is accused of planning the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001.

The medium- to long-term fallout from a possible Barghouti release is a wild card. A free Barghouti could choose to help bolster Mr. Abbas, succeed him in new elections or lead an insurgency against the politically vulnerable president from within Fatah.

Because Barghouti is thought to have good ties with Hamas, many expect that he would seek to reconcile the three-year political rift between the Islamic militants, who control Gaza, and the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank.

Kadoura Fares, a Barghouti loyalist from Fatah, said that Hamas is holding firm on its demand even though Israel opposes his release.

“He can play a very important role in Palestinian unity,” he said. “It’s clear that we are not going to liberate the Palestinian nation in the next two years through negotiations. And it’s clear that we’re not going to be liberated through resistance.”

Still, even though Israeli public opinion is overwhelmingly resigned to a lopsided swap, Barghouti’s release could be complicated for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because the Palestinian symbolizes in Israeli minds the uprising’s focus on civilian bombings and shootings.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he opposes Barghouti’s release. “We’re not talking about a murderer,” he said, “but the leader of the murderers.”

Arabic-language media reports suggest that Israel might agree to Barghouti’s release on the condition he is expelled from the West Bank, which would neutralize his political role. The Jerusalem Post reported that Barghouti opposes the option of deportation.

“Marwan’s release is problematic; there’s not doubt about it. He’s no more dangerous than other people on the list, and probably a lot less. The thing is that Marwan is a political leader,” said Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.

“Marwan could be the leader of the Palestinian peace camp. He could also be the leader of the next Palestinian intifada.”

Barghouti is seen among the Palestinians as the most prominent leader of the younger generation of Fatah that came of age during the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and helped to lead the first popular uprising, which broke out in 1987.

Now middle-aged, that cohort of former grass-roots leaders has sniped at the Abbas generation of Fatah insiders who returned to the Palestinian territories after the 1993 Oslo accords from years of exile and who are accused of being corrupt and out of touch with average Palestinians.

If Barghouti were released, he would likely become a rival to Mr. Abbas, said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. What’s more, a potential reconciliation and power-sharing agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas could complicate the continuation of negotiations, since the Islamist militants do not recognize the Jewish state.

“It’s totally against Israel’s interest,” Mr. Makovsky said. “I don’t think the U.S. is agitating for his release.”

A U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic declined to comment on whether the Obama administration would like to see Barghouti freed.

“Throughout the negotiations that led to an agreement on Shalit’s release, the government of Israel has kept the details of those negotiations private, and we have respected the government of Israel’s desire to maintain control over public comment on its efforts to free Shalit,” the official said.

Nicholas Kralev contributed to this article from Washington.

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