The chances for setting up a Palestinian unity government are greater now than ever. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is scheduled to be in Gaza this weekend to finalize the details of government structure with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. The sides are formulating the documents, submitting lists of ministerial candidates and, if all goes well, within a short time a Palestinian unity government will be established with the participation of Hamas, Fatah, the Popular Front and the People's Party (the former Communists) and independents. Perhaps even within a week or two.
Although the Palestinian spokesmen aren't connecting the two issues, the presentation of the unity government is clearly supposed to be part of a more comprehensive move that will include a deal for the release of Gilad Shalit, parallel to the first stage of the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners. Without Shalit's release in return for prisoners, the unity government will not be able to begin its work.
On the Palestinian side, it is possible to discern the first portents of the near completion of the prisoner release deal. Announcements and slogans in newspapers call for "Liberty for the Prisoners" (from their perspective, they are prisoners of war, and not criminals). Hamas politburo member Osama Mazzini, who at the end of last weekend announced a breakthrough in the negotiations concerning Shalit and the prisoners, explained: "It is possible that this time the occupation leaders are evincing seriousness about bringing to an end the dealing with a case that has brought them domestic and international embarrassment ... and in the coming days several reports will be made public that will bring joy to the Palestinians, especially to the families of the prisoners."
In this context, it is desirable for the government of Israel to decide to release the secretary general of Fatah in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouti. It's the right opportunity to do so, as opined by Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra, whose remarks have been given prominent play in the Palestinian media: "I know Barghouti well, and I know that he has the ability to strengthen Fatah and Abu Mazen."
Publicity like this does not always help Abu Mazen or the Fatah movement. If we assume the Palestinian unity government will not last and will fall apart shortly (a common assumption), another election race in the PA will be unavoidable. Then, the demand for Barghouti's release will grow, because only Barghouti is capable of coping with Hamas, and Israel might as well release him.
But freeing him in such circumstances could backfire. The Palestinian street could see such a move as a crude intervention in their elections and an attempt to dictate their vote - and will do the opposite. That is, they will vote for Hamas and trip up Barghouti. There is much discussion of such a possibility among Barghouti and acquaintances who visit him frequently in prison. Barghouti has been telling them that if Israel frees him so he can run against Hamas, he will refuse to be released.
The deal for Shalit will also free Palestinian political activists, headed by cabinet members and Hamas MPs, who have been held in administrative detention to pressure for Shalit's release. Popular Front leaders Ahmad Saadat and Abed Rahim Maluah, as well as Hussam Khader of Nablus, who was a Fatah MP, are also in an Israeli prison. Without doubt, most of these activists, certainly the Hamas people but also others, will be released now. Veteran prisoners known as those "with blood on their hands" will also be released along with them. In such an extensive framework, it will look reasonable and even legitimate to release Barghouti, too.
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