Senior Palestinian officials are opposed to the release of jailed Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti in a prisoner exchange involving the release of captured IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, the Jerusalem Post has learned.
The Palestinian concern is that, at this stage, Barghouti's release from prison will spoil his image and foil Fatah's plans to run him at the top of its ticket in the next Palestinian elections.
Barghouti, the Palestinians believe, was extremely popular on the Palestinian street due to his imprisonment but as soon as he was freed, Fatah's following would diminish.
"The moment he is released there is a concern that Palestinians will see him for what he really is and he will lose support," an Israeli defense official said.
Barghouti's name topped a list of prisoners passed on to Israel recently by Schalit's Hamas captors.
According to the defense official, the PA official's request put Israel in a "tough spot" since, on the one hand, Barghouti was at the top of the list of prisoners Hamas demanded be released in exchange for Schalit but, on the other hand, his release could prevent Fatah's return to power.
"This needs to be taken into consideration since it is in our interest that Fatah return to power and win in the next elections," an Israeli defense source explained.
The Post has learned that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas did not raise the release of Barghouti with Olmert during their three meetings over the last three months.
Barghouti's release would undoubtedly have a huge impact on Palestinian politics, and some observers maintain that Abbas is not keen on facing a strong political rival from inside Fatah at this time. Another school of thought believes that the fact that Hamas put Barghouti on the list of prisoners submitted to Israel, while Fatah has not actively pushed his release, indicated that he has moved closer to Hamas.
Senior officials in Jerusalem said that a decision to release Barghouti would have to be made by the security cabinet, as would a decision to release Ahmed Saadat, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader who orchestrated the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi.
A security cabinet meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, though at this time this issue is not on the agenda.
The officials said that the list the Palestinians presented includes "450 murderers."
Environment Minister Gideon Ezra brought up the possibility of releasing Barghouti at a cabinet meeting earlier this year, at which time it was decided that because of the political sensitivity of the issue, it would have to be discussed at the security cabinet level.
The officials said that the fact that the Palestinians presented Israel with a list of names indicated that Israel and the Palestinians have agreed on how many prisoners would be released, and that the current negotiations were focused on exactly who would be released.
At the same time, the officials warned against expecting a prisoner release within a matter of days, saying that the work of going over the list of names and deciding who Israel would be willing to release could take "some time."
A senior PA official revealed that the proposed deal would be implemented in three phases. First, Israel would release 400 females and minors and all Hamas ministers and legislators who were arrested over the past year. In return, Schalit would be handed over to the Egyptian authorities.
Second, Israel would release 450 prisoners who are serving lengthy sentences and leaders of various Palestinian factions. In return, the Egyptians would hand Schalit over to Israel.
Third, another 550 Palestinians would be released by Israel in two stages 30 days after the return of Schalit.
"The final list was handed over to Israel last Thursday," the official told the Post. "This is a very sensitive period and we have to be very cautious. All the Palestinian factions have been instructed to refrain from issuing statements regarding this case because we want to complete it successfully."
The official also revealed that representatives of all the Palestinian factions took part in preparing the list of names. "The list includes prisoners belonging to all the factions," he said.
The two most prominent names on the list are those of Barghouti and Saadat.
A Hamas source said the list also includes the following: Hassan Yussef, a top Hamas leader in the West Bank; Abdallah Barghouti, a commander of Hamas's armed wing responsible for scores of suicide bombings in which dozens of people were killed; Yahya Sinwar, one of the founders of Hamas's armed wing who has been in prison for more than 20 years; Hassan Salameh, a Hamas member who planned a series of suicide bombings in Israel in the mid-1990s; Abdel Khalek Natsheh, a senior Hamas representative in the West Bank; Rouhi Mushtahi, a former commander of Hamas's armed wing who has been in prison for more than 20 years; Bassam Sa'edeh, one of the leaders of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank; and Fuad Shubaki, a former aide to Yasser Arafat who was accused of involvement in the 2001 attempt to smuggle a weapons ship into the Gaza Strip.
Hisham Abdel Razek, former PA Minister for Prisoners Affairs, confirmed that Schalit's captors were demanding the release of 1,400 prisoners. He expressed hope that the release of these prisoners would mark the beginning of the end of the presence of all 9,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
"We are aware of the fact that not all of our prisoners will be released in the upcoming deal, but we are hopeful that this will be the beginning," he said. "We are also seeking the release of Israeli Arabs."
Jamal Farawneh, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Society in the Gaza Strip, called on Hizbullah to demand the release of more Palestinian prisoners in exchange for two IDF soldiers that the organization is holding. He expressed optimism that Israel and the Palestinians would reach a deal very soon.
Meir Indor, director of Almagor, the Terror Victims Association, protested the proposed release of Palestinian prisoners. He warned that it would lead to more Israeli deaths in the future. Indor claimed that 177 Israelis killed in terror attacks in the last five years were killed by Palestinians "without blood on their hands" who had been released from Israeli jails.
Even worse, he said, such a deal would give Palestinians the idea that there was a "revolving door" in Israeli prisons, which would encourage them to engage in further acts of terror out of a belief that they too would be released in future deals.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.