Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who swept to victory in a Palestinian parliamentary primary election in Ramallah, could be pardoned in the future if Israel reached a final peace agreement with the Palestinians and all terrorism ceased, cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Kadima faction said Sunday.
Barghouti, who headed the Fatah Tanzim militia, was a driving force in both Palestinian uprisings. He is serving five life terms in prison for involvement in deadly terror attacks on Israelis.
On Friday, primaries were held to select Fatah candidates for the Palestinian Legislative Council in five of the largest West Bank districts - Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Tubas. Winners of the primaries will appear on ballots for Palestinian parliamentary elections to be held at the end of January.
Despite, or in part because of, his imprisonment, Barghouti had a very strong showing in the West Bank town of Ramallah, winning some 34,000 votes out of the 40,000 eligible Fatah voters.
President Moshe Katsav Sunday dismissed speculation of a pardon in the works for Barghouti.
"The institution of clemency was intended to lighten punishment for humanitarian reasons, and not for diplomatic or political purposes," Katsav told Army Radio.
"If there are reasons of mercy, I will give the issue consideration, but as for political reasons - just because won in the polling booth, this is no grounds for a pardon."
But Sheetrit said a pardon could be granted in the future, depending on diplomatic and security factors. Referring to comments by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom that Barghouti would never br released from prison, Sheetrit said:
"Under present circumstances, with his having been responsible for terror and a civilian court having convicted him, I don't see a possibility of his being released soon. However, as they say in politics, 'Never say never.'
"I believe that if a permanent peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians, and if terror in the region ceases totally, and there is absolute calm and peace in the region, we can, of course, discuss [a pardon].
Sheetrit, a former justice minister, said he was well-acquainted with Barghouti. "Before the present intifada, he supported peace very strongly, and struggled for democracy in the Palestinian Authority, and was really a very positive man until entangled himself in terrorism, and, in the intifada, made the mistake of his life."
"You can grant a pardon if you think that it is appropriate. In order that such a pardon should be granted, the conditions must be created for such a pardon. To my regret, I do not yet see those conditions."
Beilin: Gov't should ask to pardon himYossi Beilin, chairman of the dovish Meretz-Yahad party, said Saturday that the election results underscored Barghouti's leadership potential and that it was time for Israel to release him.
"I think today there is no doubt that he is one of the top leaders in the Palestinian street," Beilin said.
Beilin said Barghouti made a terrible mistake in participating in the uprising, but "today he can be a moderating and positive influence. Therefore I think it would be right for the government to ask the President to pardon him."
A senior Israeli official criticized Beilin's remarks. "Why release him? Because he won the primaries?" he said. He also criticized Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom "for hurriedly responding that Barghouti would never be released."
Over the past few months there have been rumors that the U.S. administration would lead a move for Barghouti's release, in return for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard from a U.S. prison. Israeli diplomatic and security officials have denied these rumors.
Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, said her husband's strong showing is a message to Israel that "Marwan is not a terrorist, he is a leader of his people and his people will not abandon him."
Future leader?Barghouti, 46, a charismatic grassroots leader, is seen as a potential future successor to PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, were Barghouti to be released from prison. He is an icon of the younger generation of Palestinian leaders, who grew up in the Palestinian territories.
Many "old guard" candidates spent years in exile with Arafat prior to a 1993 deal with Israel which allowed them to return.
"The old guard has failed politically and administratively, and in running their organization in a democratic way," said Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri. "It's time to go home."
The Barghouti-led "young guard" had long pushed for a greater say, especially after last year's death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who founded Fatah and controlled it four decades.
Altogether, around 1,000 people are competing for 132 places on the Fatah list ahead of Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January.
The new parliament will have 132 seats, up from 88 in the current legislature. Polls indicate that Fatah will remain the strongest political force, but that Hamas will come in a close second in its first major test at the polls.
Ramallah election official Jamal Muheisen told Reuters that Barghouti was the clear leader in the early stages of the count with some 8,500 votes, although 40 more polling stations in the Ramallah district had still to declare their results.
"Until now it appears that the younger generation is leading in the vote but we have not finished the counting yet," Muheisen said.
New facesHamas is campaigning on a platform of clean government and claims credit for Israel's Gaza pullout this summer, saying its attacks pushed Israel out.
Some 463,000 Palestinians registered for the Fatah primary. In all, 463 candidates competed in the West Bank and 311 in Gaza to get on the Fatah parliament list.
Abbas will put together the final list from a pool of the top vote-getters. However, he'll consider twice as many people as districts have seats, allowing him to choose from a larger group and giving him considerable say.
Two fugitives from Fatah's violent offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, also secured high positions. The Jenin winner, Jamal Abu Rob, who gave himself the nickname "Hitler," is wanted for killing several suspected informers with Israel. The Nablus candidate, Jamal Jumaa, is a leader of Al Aqsa in the West Bank's largest city.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and virtually all other members of Fatah's ruling body, the Central Committee, did not compete. Sakher Habash, a Central Committee member who did run, won only about 2,000 votes in Ramallah.
The primary was to have been held in 16 voting districts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the voting was delayed in many areas, with activists complaining of dubious registrations practices and threats by gunmen.
The Fatah primary vote was open to party members and supporters. An election official said that the turnout had been around 60 percent.
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