- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

JERUSALEM — The election victory Friday in Palestinian primaries of Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a life sentence in Israel, has touched off a debate among Israeli leaders over whether he should be freed.

The head of the left-wing Yahad Party, Yossi Beilin called for a presidential pardon and Mr. Barghouti’s swift release.

“Barghouti is an important moderating force,” Mr. Beilin said. “He was involved in the intifada and was one of its leaders. Nevertheless, he was and remains one of those who sought peace with Israel all through the years.”

Continuation of his imprisonment, he said, reduces the chances of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

A contrary view was voiced by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who said Mr. Barghouti “has blood on his hands and will never be released.”

Mr. Shalom said that Mr. Barghouti is not in prison because of his political activities, but because of his terrorist activities.

Mr. Barghouti, 46, was sentenced three years ago to five consecutive life terms as leader of the Fatah armed faction that carried out terror acts against Israeli civilians in the Palestinian uprising. Before the intifada, Mr. Barghouti was considered in Israel as the Palestinian leader with whom it was most likely to engage in a dialogue leading to peace. He not only spoke Hebrew well from previous stints in Israeli prisons, but understood the Israeli mind-set and spoke with conviction of his desire to reach an agreement enabling Israel and the Palestinians to live alongside each other in two states.

After the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, when Hamas began to gain wide popularity among Palestinians because of its militancy against Israel, Mr. Barghouti unleashed the armed faction of the mainstream Fatah movement against Israel in what his supporters said was an attempt to prevent the Palestinian public from abandoning Fatah altogether.

A senior Israeli government source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that Mr. Barghouti would eventually be released, but only as part of a comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians.

“Treaties are usually accompanied by prisoner releases,” he said.

Israelis see Mr. Barghouti’s sweeping victory in the primaries held in Ramallah by Fatah for candidates in the legislative race next year, as well as the victory of other young candidates, as marking the emergence of a new generation of Palestinian leaders to displace those who returned from exile in 1993 with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The older generation of Fatah leaders is widely viewed as corrupt and inefficient by Palestinians. The charismatic Mr. Barghouti evokes far greater enthusiasm among Palestinians than the decidedly noncharismatic Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas. The victories of the younger Fatah candidates is seen as likely to reverse the tide of public support among Palestinians for Hamas.

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