Fatah and Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti has been in Israeli prison for more than six years now. Four years have passed since he was convicted of five counts of murder and an attempted murder and sentenced to five prison terms and another 40 years.
Barghouti, who turned the Tanzim, the Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, into a real terror group responsible for many attacks on Israelis in the second Intifada, is considered by influential security officials in Israel as the only Palestinian leader capable of stopping Hamas’ expansion and take over of the West Bank.
Indeed, as of late senior officials are starting to recognize that there would be no escaping the need to release him in the near future (perhaps in the prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit) despite the harsh verdict and the serious crimes he was convicted of.
Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer called for Barghouti’s release on several occasions. “Only he can change the picture,” the minister says. “I respect Abbas and Fayyad, they are good people…but I’m looking for someone we can finalize a deal with.”
In September of this year, Mahmoud Abbas’ first term in office as Palestinian Authority chairman will draw to an end, and new elections are supposed to be held. It is known that Abbas objects to Barghouti’s release, but he does not dare say so publicly in light of Barghouti’s great popularity among the Palestinians.
Israeli officials are concerned that as result of Abbas’ weakness and his lack of popularity in the West Bank, a Hamas representative may be elected to replace him, as happened in January 2006 when Ismail Haniyeh became prime minister.
Unequivocal support for peace deal
Should Barghouti be released a short while before the elections, his victory would not be assured. Therefore, officials who are pushing for his release seek to do this in the near future, so that he can prepare for the election campaign and ensure his victory.
This position has been publicly endorsed by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, his predecessor, Knesset Member Ephraim Sneh, and by Minister Gideon Ezra. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has not voiced his opinion on the matter, but it appears that he does not object to the early release in light of the concern that Hamas would take over the West Bank.
Talks between Barghouti and leftist figures in Israel showed that he expresses unequivocal support for a peace deal and calm between Israel and the Palestinians. Since his detainment, Barghouti initiated several ceasefire agreements, both vis-à-vis Israel and in the domestic Palestinian theater between Hamas and Fatah.
It appears that Barghouti’s release won’t be an overly great Israeli gamble, as the possibility of stopping
A close friend of Barghouti’s told me this week: The only risk taken by the Israeli government in releasing him is sustaining harsh criticism from the Right, but this is counterbalanced by the chance of lifting the danger of turning the West Bank into an Iranian base near Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion international airport, and Tel Aviv.
So what’s more important? The answer is clear.