LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
From Ramallah, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT: 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.
EPHRAIM SNEH: 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.
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: 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.
TAMAR HERMANN: 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: 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.
SAHED NIMER: 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.
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: Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Ramallah.
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