Will A Long-Awaited Israel/Palestine Prisoner Swap Finally Go Through?
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JERUSALEM, Nov 30 (IPS) - The fate of one prisoner locked in an Israeli jail could release the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process from its own jail - provided the timing is right.
The political timing is definitely ripe.
This week a major residual source of tension between Israelis and Palestinians may just be about to be resolved - if German mediation finally overcomes last-minute hitches to the long-awaited exchange - a thousand Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
It's not yet certain that the prisoner exchange will go through. Nor is it clear who among the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails will be part of the deal.
And, it's certainly not definite that that Marwan Barghouti, the leader of the Fatah military forces who was sentenced to life imprisonment by an Israeli court five years ago at the height of the Palestinian Intifadah, will be among them.
If the swap goes through without Barghouti, it's unlikely to have much impact on furthering peace between the two peoples; the political impact would be restricted to domestic Palestinian affairs, the bolstering of Hamas at the expense of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas.
In contrast, the releasing of Barghouti could be a defining moment in Palestinian-Israeli relations, a real test of the real intention behind Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's announcement last week of a limited and temporary settlement freeze in the West Bank.
So far the Palestinian leadership has scoffed off the partial settlement moratorium as a Netanyahu ruse designed to ease U.S. pressure on Israel. With due cause: the announced freeze is not total, it excludes East Jerusalem, and previously approved settlement construction will go on. And, there's doubt, even within Israel, whether the Netanyahu government has the technical means to enforce the freeze at all.
Back in July 2000, just weeks before the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifadah, Barghouti, speaking in his modest Ramallah office, laid out his alternative strategy for ending the Occupation: "We will take our people onto the '67 lines and proclaim from there that we're simply defending our borders against the Israeli occupation - no arms, no stones even, just our bodies," he told us.
Barghouti is seen by many Palestinians as the optimal leader to take them towards their future state should Mahmoud Abbas indeed decide to step down, as he has threatened to do.
Barghouti, 50, is considered the true heir of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, precisely perhaps because he too courts ambiguity.
His assertive approach has regularly elevated him to the top of polls of whom Palestinians would like to lead them against Israel - both in negotiations to end the occupation and in resisting the continuing occupation.
From his prison cell, Barghouti recently answered questions from an Arabic newspaper in which he laid out his old new strategy: "Relying on negotiations alone was never our choice. I've always called for a constructive mix of negotiations, resistance and political, diplomatic and popular action."
That precisely may be the source of Israeli misgivings that he would be a more amenable pattern for peace.
But now, with the prospect that Abbas may take himself out the picture, Israel has another concern to confront - a power vacuum within the PA. The future of the flagging PA would be all the more precarious since Hamas would gain enormous credibility from the prisoner exchange.
There is some opposition, but the remarkable fact is that it's muted and, overwhelmingly, Israelis are ready to accept the prisoner deal, even to the extent of 'giving up' Palestinians who took part in some of the bloodiest attacks against civilians.
Alon Liel, a political science lecturer at Hebrew University and a former top Israeli diplomat, takes that mood further: "The astonishing public and political willingness to pay an unprecedented price could become the leverage necessary to give the deal a historic dimension," he asserts, adding, "You don't have to be a brilliant politician to realise that the line connecting a technical prisoner exchange with a move toward a peace process runs through Marwan Barghouti."
'When', is thus the key question - not if, but when, to release Barghouti - provided, of course, Netanyahu has a real peace agenda in mind.
If he is serious about engaging peace, Netanyahu could use the present public momentum among the Israeli people for the prisoner exchange to create a new diplomatic momentum.
That, however, would require him to disassociate the deal from freeing Barghouti.
Had Netanyahu decided to release Barghouti in advance of a broad prisoner deal, Hamas would probably have torpedoed it since it would have risked having the political reward stolen from them - to their detriment in the ongoing power struggle with the PA.
Also, Netanyahu's right flank might well have been able to scuttle Barghouti's release.
Now, however, many in Israel are calling for Barghouti's release. Netanyahu has now the opportunity to steal the thunder from Hamas - to the mutual benefit of both Israel and the PA.
Such a trumping of Hamas could only work once the exchange deal with Hamas has already been secured and implemented.
Barghouti's release after the deal-in-the-making with Hamas, and separate from it, would bring Netanyahu and the PA multiple benefits: for Israel, applause from Washington for a bold confidence-building measure; for the PA, a way out of a potentially perilous political vacuum.
Moreover, for the sceptical Palestinian leadership, the release of Barghouti would provide the acid test to the genuineness of Netanyahu's professed peace feelers.
And, for the U.S., a free Barghouti bolstering Abbas would provide the best start for future peace-making that Washington could hope for, especially given the past nine months of failed peace-making.