According to persistent reports, a deal could be in the works to swap convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard for convicted Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti.
Pollard has been serving time for 21 years in a maximum-security federal prison in the US. Barghouti was convicted in Israel nearly two years ago on five counts of murder and was sentenced to five terms of life imprisonment plus 40 years.
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Even prima facie the equation between Pollard and Barghouti is so inherently untenable that, despite the fervent desire to see Pollard set free at long last, denials that such a deal is in the works are welcome.
Pollard's espionage is no way comparable to Barghouti's homicides. Moreover, Barghouti's recidivist penchant is a foregone conclusion. In fact, once released he'd be that much more dangerous. As was the case with former Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, years behind Israeli bars would enhance Barghouti's image and catapult him to the status of a revered hero.
Barghouti offered a clear picture of his mind-set in an interview with the newspaper Al-Ayyam
published last Saturday, in which he vowed "to continue on the path of struggle and resistance," the conventional code for terror operations. He demanded the "full right of return for refugees" to Israel proper, code for inundating the Jewish state with potential millions of Palestinians, destroying its majority Jewish demographic and essence.
Barghouti also slammed Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's convergence plan, accused Israel of having assassinated Yasser Arafat and opined that "the attempt to reach a phased peace deal utterly failed and must not be repeated under any circumstances."
Even more disconcerting is the contention that the reported swap is an Israeli initiative, the rehashing of a proposal first suggested two years ago but rejected out of hand. Such a rejection would hardly have come as a surprise. Why would the US wish to spring Barghouti?
Besides the obvious menace he'd pose to Israel directly, Barghouti's reintroduction to the scene of his crimes countermands everything America's own war against terror strives for. His offenses are cast in the precise terrorist mold that Washington has undertaken to end.
Israeli proponents of this exchange argue that Hamas's ascent to power is what revived this idea and is what could render it particularly expedient. The notion is that Barghouti, leader of Fatah-Tanzim, would function as counterweight to Hamas and, as the anarchy in the Palestinian areas increases, restore Fatah's lost hegemony - with himself at the helm.
However, the very perception of Barghouti as preferable to Hamas is inherently flawed. His rhetoric years ago may have been milder, but the deeds for which he was jailed superseded any purported moderation. And his newly restated aims and those of Hamas are all but indistinguishable.
Israeli endeavors to tip Palestinian political scales can only aggravate a bad situation. Israel already burned its fingers with such meddling, ironically by encouraging the rise of Hamas in the late 1980s as a foil to Fatah.
Releasing Barghouti would also undermine Israel's deterrence, further bereave the families of Barghouti's victims, and render Israel's judiciary a laughing stock.
In contrast with Israel's revolving-door, through which many convicted terrorists have been allowed out, it is extremely difficult to extract a convict from the American penal system.
In Pollard's case no amount of entreaties thus far could effect his release and former US president Bill Clinton even reportedly reneged on a deal with former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to that end.
Pollard's transgression pales in comparison to Barghouti's atrocities. Pollard leaked material to America's ally (Israel) about an enemy's (Iraq's) preparations against it. American counter-espionage has incontrovertibly apprehended greater and more harmful spies, yet they weren't treated anywhere as harshly as Pollard.
Jews are currently celebrating Pessah, the festival of freedom. There's no context more suitable for Israel's premier, in his upcoming Washington visit, to put liberating Pollard from bondage at the top of his priority list. This should be done because it is what Pollard deserves, with no strings attached - and certainly not any strings connected to Barghouti.