Analysis: Olmert laying groundwork for Barghouti's release

At Sde Boker, Olmert promised the Palestinians a "large number" of prisoners if the cease-fire holds.

barghouti prison 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
barghouti prison 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
In his speech at Sde Boker on Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised the Palestinians that if the cease-fire holds and they cooperate in his new diplomatic initiative, Israel will be willing to release large numbers of prisoners, including those "who have been sentenced to long periods." Bearing in mind that the speech was intended both for internal and international consumption, this was an interesting choice of words. In the past, when Israeli leaders have been willing to go a long way toward the Palestinians, the talk was of even releasing some prisoners "with blood on their hands " - those who had been involved in murdering Israelis. What exactly constitutes "blood on their hands" - was it actually pulling the trigger or also aiding and abetting - was never clear, but it was always enough to cause a public uproar in Israel. For the Palestinians it meant that the final solution to the prisoner issue was still far away. But when Olmert is talking of prisoners who still have "long periods" left to serve, this isn't just another way of saying that murderers will eventually be allowed to walk in a future peace deal. What he's actually doing is swinging the ultimate prize in front of the Palestinians' eyes. There is one particular prisoner serving five life sentences and 40 years, who every Palestinian was thinking about at that moment. It was only two-and-a-half years ago that Marwan Barghouti was convicted for five murders and one attempted murder as leader of the Aksa Martyrs Brigades and handed a sentence that should keep him behind bars until the mid-22nd century. He's already a candidate for inclusion in the impending prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit. No one in government is going to admit that Barghouti's release is being considered. Olmert expressly denied it on the plane to Washington two weeks ago. But neither did he say it was out of the question, and this week's speech was a clear hint in that direction. Barghouti might be a convicted murderer, but the attitude of Israel's leadership towards him is as a leader in exile. He is frequently visited in his Hadarim Prison cell by politicians and officers carrying messages from up high, and was allowed to play a central role in the negotiations leading to Sunday's cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Barghouti was already the most influential Palestinian leader of his generation before his imprisonment, a favorite counterpart of Israeli left-wingers in meetings before the second intifada. If Israel's political and security leadership had intentions of minimizing his power by sending him to jail, they sure have a strange way of carrying them out. Olmert isn't alluding to the possibility of Barghouti's release just as an incentive to the Palestinians. No one in the Middle East still believes the enfeebled Mahmoud Abbas is capable of delivering at the negotiating table. For Olmert's new plan to have any chance of turning into reality, he's going to have make a difficult choice of which Palestinian leadership to deal with. Many Israelis will instinctively say that if the choice of partners is between Barghouti and the Hamas leadership, then we might as well go on fighting for another century. But anyone interested in jump-starting a new process with the Palestinians might feel that releasing Barghouti would accelerate it. Already there are those who are preparing the explanations and excuses to the public for his early release, not to mention the answers that will be needed to deal with petitions to the Supreme Court. All of sudden we will be reminded that Barghouti wasn't actually a part of the teams that carried out the suicide bombings, that he was more on the political side. After all, he fought Arafat over corruption and human rights and was in favor of peace with Israel since 1994. But as much as Olmert might be interested in boosting his new plan by releasing Barghouti, he's still got to sell it to an infuriated public. One method might be coupling it with a more popular outcome - getting Gilad Shalit back. As cruel as it sounds, the negotiations over the impending prisoner deal have long ago stopped being about the freedom of Shalit. His is now a minor pawn - both in the Palestinian power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, and in the government's long road back to credibility. Exchanging prisoners was never a straightforward business, especially since the swap was always lopsided. But at least in the past it was usually a matter of waiting for a cessation of hostilities and coming up with a particular balance. Hundreds of enemy soldiers or captured terrorists would be on their way home in return for a handful of our soldiers. Then and now, politicians and philosophers raised the question of what is a fair and sensible exchange and what is the balance between the national interest and the plight of a small number of individuals and their families. Almost always the outcome was in favor of bringing our boys back - no matter the price - and the public concurred. Shalit's fate is tied up with the ongoing Palestinian coalition talks, Syrian and Iranian influences on Hamas, the shaky cease-fire and its longevity, score-settling and rivalry on the Israeli side. All this before the eventual price - hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to be let loose before or after Shalit's release - has been agreed upon. Whether or not the government considers using Barghouti to cut through this Gordian knot, or as seems more likely, keep him as a bargaining chip for a more advanced stage, what is now almost certain is that the Palestinians already have their assurance that Barghouti's early release is just a matter of time.