WASHINGTON — Israeli officials this week denied press reports that individuals close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were cooking up a deal in which imprisoned Fatah strongman Marwan Barghouti would be freed in exchange for the release by the Bush administration of Jonathan Pollard, the American naval intelligence analyst who received a life sentence in 1986 for spying for Israel.
The administration is said to be completely uninterested in such a deal. According to some Israeli reports, Pollard’s supporters floated the idea.
However, sources said that while a swap is implausible, Israeli officials are considering the possibility of releasing Barghouti under certain circumstances. Barghouti, considered the most popular and charismatic figure in the younger generation of Fatah leadership, was sentenced in 2004 to five consecutive life terms for leading the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and for ordering the murder of Israelis. While in prison, he led Fatah’s parliamentary slate in the Palestinian legislative elections this past January. He is widely seen as the only figure that could regroup Fatah and provide legitimacy to future negotiations with Israel if and when the Hamas government falls.
“Most senior officials in the political system and in the security apparatus realize that at some point, this man will have to be released because he’s probably the only one with whom we could sign an agreement,” said Shlomo Brom, a former top intelligence analyst now serving as a scholar at the congressionally funded United States Institute of Peace. “If the imperative is to bring about the collapse of the Hamas government as soon as possible, then it is also imperative to prepare for the day after.”
Brom and other Israeli experts noted, however, that Barghouti’s release would pose enormous political difficulties in the foreseeable future because of the likelihood of a public-opinion backlash. Paradoxically, Brom said, the more terrorism and anarchy intensify, the more difficult it would be for Israeli politicians to release him because the Israeli public will grow more resentful of the brigades and their leader.