Israel split over calls to release jailed Palestinian leader

By Peter Beaumont, The Guardian – 12 Aug 2009

A fierce debate has erupted among senior Israeli politicians over whether the jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti – regarded by some Israelis as an “arch-terrorist” and by others as the only man who can deliver a lasting peace – should be released from prison after his election to Fatah’s key central committee.

Barghouti, one of the most high-profile leaders of the second intifada, was arrested in 2002 and sentenced two years later to five life terms in an Israeli prison for murders that he denies.

As it became clear that Barghouti had been elected to the highest decision-making body of Fatah, the movement once associated with the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, a number of ministers and members of the Israeli Knesset called for Barghouti’s release as part of a prisoner swap for the abducted soldier Gilad Schalit, who is being held by Fatah’s Islamist rival Hamas.

Among those leading the calls were Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, the national infrastructure minister and a former defence minister, and his Labour colleague Avishay Braverman, the minister for minorities.

According to Israel‘s Channel 10, Ben-Eliezer has told cabinet colleagues in private that he believes only Barghouti can bring the two sides to a final status agreement on a future Palestinian state.

Gideon Ezra, a former deputy head of Israel’s Shin Bet security organisation and an MP with Kadima, the party created by Ariel Sharon, has also urged Barghouti’s release. “Israel should not be inflexible and [should] oblige the Palestinians in Barghouti’s case,” Ezra said.

There has been strong resistance, however. The leader of Israel’s opposition, Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, told Israel Army Radio today: “Marwan Barghouti was put on trial in a court in Israel, and was sentenced to many years in prison. He murdered and was convicted of murder. The fact that the Palestinian public chose him to lead Fatah, or that some of us think that he might be a better partner than others, that does not justify in my eyes his release from jail given the crimes he committed.”

The sport and culture minister, Limor Livnat, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, described Barghouti as “dangerous”.

Barghouti enjoys widespread respect and support among Palestinians and – despite his conviction for murder – is privately viewed as a moderate by a number of senior Israeli officials. A poll this year concluded that in presidential elections he would defeat both Ismael Haniyeh, of Hamas, and Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah.

Convicted in 2004 for the murders of four Israelis and a Greek monk, his reputation derives from his leadership role in the second intifada, when he was the mayor of Ramallah, and as one of the key architects of the 2006 “prisoners document”.

The document called for a Palestinian state to be established within the pre-1967 borders as well as for the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. Significantly, it was signed by prisoners representing all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas.

A member of what some have dubbed the “intifada elite”, Barghouti, who speaks fluent Hebrew, was imprisoned by Israel in the late 1970s for plotting attacks and deported to Jordan. His exile ended in 1994 after the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO, and he was later elected to Palestinian Legislative Council.

A critic of corruption in Palestinian politics in the last years of Yasser Arafat’s life, he also opposed the way in which the older generation of Palestinian leaders had negotiated a very partial settlement with Israel, once saying: “We tried seven years of intifada without negotiations, and then seven years of negotiations without intifada; perhaps it is time to try both simultaneously.”

It is not the first time that Barghouti’s name has been linked with a possible prisoner swap: he was one of the most senior prisoners in a proposed Hamas exchange in 2006, and was mentioned again at the beginning of this year in discussions over a deal to release Schalit.

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