Israel: Barghouti to stay in jail until peace deal
By Aluf Benn, Haaretz Correspondent, Haaretz Service and Reuters
Marwan Barghouti swept to victory in a weekend parliamentary primary election in Ramallah, but a senior Israeli official said Saturday that the jailed intifada leader would remain behind bars at least until a peace agreement was signed with the Palestininians.
Barghouti, who headed the Fatah Tanzim militia, was a driving force in both Palestinian uprisings. He is serving five life terms in prison for involvement in deadly terror attacks on Israelis.
"It is common that peace agreements are accompanied by the release of prisoners, but even then it is not certain that he would be released," the official said.
On Friday, primaries were held to select Fatah candidates for the Palestinian Legislative Council in five of the largest West Bank districts - Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Tubas. Winners of the primaries will appear on ballots for Palestinian parliamentary elections to be held at the end of January.
Despite, or in part because of, his imprisonment, Barghouti had a very strong showing in the West Bank town of Ramallah, winning some 30,000 votes out of the 40,000 eligible Fatah voters.
Barghouti was the principal leader of the Fatah Tanzim militia until
Yossi Beilin, Chairman of the dovish Meretz-Yahad party, said the election results underscored Barghouti's leadership potential and that it was time for Israel to release him.
"I think today there is no doubt that he is one of the top leaders in the Palestinian street," Beilin said.
Beilin said Barghouti made a terrible mistake in participating in the uprising, but "today he can be a moderating and positive influence. Therefore I think it would be right for the government to ask the President to pardon him."
The official criticized Beilin's remarks. "Why release him? Because he won the primaries?" he said. He also criticized Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom "for hurriedly responding that Barghouti would never be released."
Israel Radio on Saturday quoted Shalom as saying that Barghouti would never be released from prison because he had blood on his hands.
The official said that there were no contacts or talks regarding Barghouti's release at the moment, and the Barghouti himself was not talking about the issue either.
Over the past few months there have been rumors that the U.S. administration would lead a move for Barghouti's release, in return for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from a U.S. prison. Israeli diplomatic and security officials have denied these rumors.
Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, said her husband's strong showing is a message to Israel that "Marwan is not a terrorist, he is a leader of his people and his people will not abandon him."
Barghouti, 46, a charismatic grassroots leader, is seen as a potential future successor to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, were Barghouti to be released from prison. He is an icon of the younger generation of Palestinian leaders, who grew up in the Palestinian territories.
Many "old guard" candidates spent years in exile with Arafat prior to a 1993 deal with Israel which allowed them to return.
"The old guard has failed politically and administratively, and in running their organization in a democratic way," said Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri. "It's time to go home."
The Barghouti-led "young guard" had long pushed for a greater say, especially after last year's death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who founded Fatah and controlled it four decades.
Altogether, around 1,000 people are competing for 132 places on the Fatah list ahead of Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January.
The new parliament will have 132 seats, up from 88 in the current legislature. Polls indicate that Fatah will remain the strongest political force, but that Hamas will come in a close second in its first major test at the polls.
Ramallah election official Jamal Muheisen told Reuters that Barghouti was the clear leader in the early stages of the count with some 8,500 votes, although 40 more polling stations in the Ramallah district had still to declare their results.
"Until now it appears that the younger generation is leading in the vote but we have not finished the counting yet," Muheisen said.
Hamas is campaigning on a platform of clean government and claims credit for Israel's Gaza pullout this summer, saying its attacks pushed Israel out.
Some 463,000 Palestinians registered for the Fatah primary. In all, 463 candidates competed in the West Bank and 311 in Gaza to get on the Fatah parliament list.
Abbas will put together the final list from a pool of the top vote-getters. However, he'll consider twice as many people as districts have seats, allowing him to choose from a larger group and giving him considerable say.
Two fugitives from Fatah's violent offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, also secured high positions. The Jenin winner, Jamal Abu Rob, who gave himself the nickname "Hitler," is wanted for killing several suspected informers with Israel. The Nablus candidate, Jamal Jumaa, is a leader of Al Aqsa in the West Bank's largest city.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and virtually all other members of Fatah's ruling body, the Central Committee, did not compete. Sakher Habash, a Central Committee member who did run, won only about 2,000 votes in Ramallah.
The primary was to have been held in 16 voting districts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the voting was delayed in many areas, with activists complaining of dubious registrations practices and threats by gunmen.
The Fatah primary vote was open to party members and supporters. An election official said that the turnout had been around 60 percent.