Washington - Israeli and American officials are seeking ways to credit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with any Israeli-Palestinian deal on a prisoner swap reached in the coming days.
Israel and the United States are expected to agree to the release of leading Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti as part of the deal, viewing him as a potential reformer who can help Abbas. Barghouti was arrested in April 2002 by Israeli forces and is serving five life terms for aiding terrorism.
According to reports in the Israeli press, Israeli and Palestinian officials already have agreed on the main components of the prisoner-swap deal. Ha’aretz reported Tuesday that Israel would start off the deal with a release of women and children held in Israeli prisons in return for a video tape of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas since his kidnapping last year on June 25. In the second phase, Israel will release 450 Palestinian prisoners, including Barghouti and Hamas political and military officials. At the same time, the Palestinians will hand over Shalit to Egyptian negotiators. In the third phase, which will take place two months later, Israel will release another “significant amount” of Palestinian prisoners.
The deal is being brokered by Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman, who met with Hamas leaders in Saudi Arabia last weekend.
While Hamas sources in Gaza described the deal as imminent, Israelis dismissed the report of an upcoming agreement as “Palestinian spin,” saying that both sides have yet to agree on the number and identity of prisoners who would be released in return for Shalit.
It seems clear that under the deal being discussed, Palestinian prisoners “with blood on their hands” —meaning those who were involved in terrorist attacks — would be released. Senior members of both Fatah and Hamas would be included.
The main issue now troubling Israelis is how to present the prisoner swap to the Palestinian public as an achievement of Abbas rather than of Hamas. Since Hamas is holding Shalit, it is clear that the organization is playing a significant role in bringing about a prisoner release. At the same time, Israel does not negotiate directly with Hamas and is attempting to make clear that the Palestinian prisoners will be given over to Abbas rather than to the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.
“The whole issue of prisoners is very emotional for the Palestinians,” said Nathan Brown, professor of international affairs at Washington’s George Washington University and a former adviser on the drafting of the P.A.’s constitution. “Neither Abbas nor Arafat managed to get prisoners released. Now Hamas is trying to prove its effectiveness.”
The main figure on the list of prisoners to be swapped is Barghouti, the unofficial leader of the second intifada. Though behind bars, Barghouti is seen as a major political force in Palestinian politics and is the co-author of the so-called prisoners’ document — a joint Hamas-Fatah platform that hints at accepting Israel and was supposed to lead to the formation of a national unity government. Barghouti is known for his good ties with all Palestinian factions, and stands out as the leader of the younger generation of Palestinians in a society still largely ruled by Arafat’s old guard. Before the intifada began in 2000, Israelis saw Barghouti as a moderate interlocutor who favored coexistence.
“If released, Barghouti can force Fatah to go through a reform process which in the long run has the potential of strengthening the movement,” Brown said.
Experts say that Hamas looks strong and generous by pushing for the release of Barghouti and other prisoners from the rival Fatah movement at a time when both factions are fighting over control of Gaza.
According to sources in Washington, the United States has little to do with the planned prisoner swap. The administration is following Egyptian efforts to finalize the deal and is expected to support Israel if it decides to release Barghouti, though it will not push Israel on this issue.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to visit the region in the middle of the month, days after President Bush presents his new policy on Iraq, which also may touch on issues relating to the broader region. Rice, according to diplomatic sources, will visit Israel, the P.A., Jordan and Egypt to discuss ways of strengthening Abbas and of restarting the peace process.
Experts are predicting that Rice’s visit will not bring immediate change.
“Expectations on the Palestinian side are low,” said Edward Abington, a former American consul general in Jerusalem who now lobbies for the P.A. in Washington. “The Palestinians are used to having Rice come over, hold a press conference with [Abbas] and then leave back to Washington without anything happening.”
Rice will make another attempt, during her visit, to implement a year-old agreement that was supposed to lead to the opening of the Gaza border crossings and allow Palestinians in Gaza to access the West Bank. The agreement is seen as one of the measures that can improve daily life for the Palestinians and at the same strengthen the political standing of Abbas.