SPECULATION is growing that Israel may stage a dramatic U-turn and release the imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti as part of a move to stabilise the West Bank.
Barghouti, 48, is serving five life terms in an Israeli jail for killing five people and belonging to a militant organisation, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade.
Fluent in Hebrew and English, and viewed by many Israelis as a pragmatist who favours negotiations with the Jewish state, he has enormous popularity in the Palestinian street. Many international experts see him as the best hope for peace in the area.
Barghouti would be the odds-on favorite to become the next President of the Palestinian Authority.
Polls carried out last week by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research revealed that if new presidential elections were held today and the only two candidates were Abbas and deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, 40% would not participate. Among those who would take part, 49% would vote for Abbas and 42% for Haniyeh.
But if the competition was between Barghouti and Haniyeh, non-participation would drop to 31% and among those who would participate, 59% said they would vote for Barghouti and 35% for Haniyeh. In the Gaza Strip, Barghouti would win against Haniyeh by 55% to 41%.
Not that releasing Barghouti would be the magic key to peace.
Still, Israeli security sources say Barghouti's release would need to be well timed and could most likely occur if Palestinian elections were to be held. Professor Shai Feldman, director of the Crown Centre for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, said the problem for the Israelis in freeing Barghouti was that such a move could badly backfire and be depicted on the Palestinian streets "as an Israeli-American conspiracy".
"Certainly, elections would provide such a hook, but his release could boomerang badly for the Israelis," he said. "Keep in mind that while he is an intelligent street-fighter and shows much promise as a leader, Barghouti is still an unknown quantity."
Here's an idea: let Barghouti stand for election to the PA presidency from his jail cell, and then grant him a conditional release if and only if (a) he runs on a platform of real peace with Israel, disbanding the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and other terrorist organizations, and (b) wins. If he then takes office and follows through on his peace commitments, let him stay free -- but if he tolerates continuing terrorism, recapture him.
Hey, it might be worth a shot.