LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Shortly before President Bush spoke yesterday, the Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Jerusalem.
Israel's Ehud Olmert has announced gestures, including a prisoner release, aimed at bolstering the Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas. But many Palestinians, including some in his Fatah Movement, see Abbas as an ineffectual leader. And there are some in the Palestinian territories and Israel who would like to see jailed Palestinian militant Marwan Barghouti take charge of the government.
From Ramallah, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: At their meeting Monday, Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas discussed the 250 prisoners in Israeli jails, almost all from Abbas's Fatah faction, who'll be released as early as Friday. Israel also said it would cancel, capture or kill orders against nearly 200 Fatah militants in the West Bank if the wanted men agree to halt violence against Israel.
Israeli lawmaker Ephraim Sneh calls those goodwill gestures important. But he says the time is now to do even more to try to build up Palestinian moderates. What Sneh calls an Iranian proxy now has total control of the coastal strip bordering Israel.
Mr. EPHRAIM SNEH (Deputy Prime Minister, Israel): We don't have time to waste. Look, for us. Hamas taking over Palestine is totally unacceptable and we have to prevent it. You cannot defeat Hamas without a strong, moderate Palestinian alternative of the Hamas.
WESTERVELT: And right now the man leading the alternative to Hamas is Mahmoud Abbas, the increasingly unpopular Fatah leader who's widely seen as indecisive and weak. For Sneh, the only viable alternative is Marwan Barghouti, the street leader of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel, who's now serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail. Sneh, of the Labor Party, is a prominent member of Israel's parliament. He says if Israel is serious about strengthening Palestinian moderates, the government should consider releasing Barghouti now.
Mr. SNEH: Because he's moderate and because he is the most popular Palestinian leader. So I would like the Palestinian society will be led by moderates and not by fanatics.
WESTERVELT: Recent polls in the Palestinian territories show that Barghouti would defeat Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh with nearly 60 percent of the vote in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip if new elections were held. Charismatic and articulate, the 48-year-old Barghouti has continued to have a major impact on Palestinian politics, even from behind bars.
Professor and pollster Tamar Hermann is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. She wonders if the government of Prime Minister Olmert really wants to strengthen Abbas and other relative Palestinian moderates.
Professor TAMAR HERMANN (Israel Democracy Institute): If they were serious in their efforts to help Fatah, certainly they would have released Barghouti. Which makes me doubt the sincerity of the Israeli decision makers in their rhetoric about really helping the counter-forces to Hamas.
WESTERVELT: Marwan Barghouti grew up in a West Bank refugee camp and cut his ideological teeth as the political leader of Fatah's armed militant wing, the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigades. Today Barghouti is the top leader of Fatah's young guard. They're reformers who have openly criticized the insular, often autocratic rule of Fatah's founders, the so-called old guard whom many on the Palestinian street see as out of touch and corrupt.
Birzeit University political scientist Sahed Nimer is a close advisor to the jailed leader and helps run the Free Marwan Barghouti campaign. Nimer says Fatah remains badly hobbled by a leadership crisis precisely when it most needs a decisive and strong person in charge.
Mr. SAHED NIMER (Birzeit University): The only potential leadership for Fatah is Marwan Barghouti and he's in prison. The releasing of Marwan Barghouti would be a huge step forward.
WESTERVELT: Barghouti was arrested in 2002 at the height of the Second Intifada. He's currently serving five consecutive life sentences after being convicted of murder for helping to plan suicide bombings in Israel that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk. Most Israelis say Barghouti has blood on his hands and should remain behind bars. Many on the Israeli right wing say Barghouti's centrism and political prowess have been widely exaggerated and obscure his enduring radicalism. They point out that Barghouti still advocates violence against Israeli soldiers and civilian settlers in the occupied West Bank. That's something Barghouti advisor and friend Sahed Nimer calls legitimate resistance.
Mr. NIMER: Marwan is saying our hands are open for the peace talks - 1967 borders, two state solution. And he is against any operation inside Israel, but he is with any kind of resistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The occupation soldiers have no business being in Ramallah and Jenin and in Nablus. To resist them, this is our duty.
WESTERVELT: Asked about Barghouti recently, Israel's Public Security Minister Avi Dicther said when Barghouti finishes serving his five life sentences, he'll still have 30 years left in prison. Only then, Dicther said, can we discuss freeing Marwan Barghouti.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramallah.
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