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One of the leaders of the Palestinian people has been incarcerated for approximately five years now in Hadarim Prison, in central Israel. The time has come to release him. For years, Marwan Barghouti has tried to persuade Israelis to end the occupation through negotiation. He has gone from one Israeli party headquarters to the next, meeting with politicians across the political spectrum. He tried to persuade them in order to preempt the next confrontation.

Barghouti failed, the second intifada broke out, and he himself turned to the path of violent struggle. After going underground for months, during which he still tried to address the Israeli public through its own media, Barghouti was arrested in April 2002 and prosecuted. He was sentenced for five life terms in prison, plus 40 years.

It is doubtful whether arresting and prosecuting him was diplomatically wise, but there is no doubting the political wisdom of releasing him.

During his years in prison, Barghouti has acted to restrain the armed struggle and bolster his people's moderate leadership, using envoys to achieve this goal. Barghouti never left his native West Bank, never took to the habits of power characteristic of the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership in Tunisia. He became a popular leader - especially in the West Bank, and to a lesser degree in the Gaza Strip.

Modern history - including Israel's - has known national leaders who turned to violence and were jailed for years, until they were released to become political leaders who marched their peoples toward independence peacefully. Nelson Mandela is one such example. The leaders of the Zionist undergrounds in prestate Israel are another. Now, Barghouti's turn has come. Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra deserves praise for speaking in favor of releasing Barghouti. Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer did not rule out the possibility either.

Fatah's moderate leadership is in a serious crisis. Israel's interest calls for its consolidation, albeit after outrageous delays, and no one matches Barghouti's ability to achieve that. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's promises in Washington that Israel would be willing to take "far-reaching" measures to assist the Palestinian Authority's emergency government must be backed by immediate action. Releasing prisoners is the first step one should demand of anyone who promises such steps.

The Israeli government should have long since helped Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to govern his people. Among other measures, it should have done this by allowing him to bring home real achievements. Releasing prisoners, Barghouti among them, could serve to change the atmosphere between Israel and the Palestinians in a heartbeat. It would prove the sincerity of Israel's statements regarding its intention to turn over a new leaf and bolster the moderate forces. The issue of prisoners who have been jailed for years holds extreme importance for Palestinian society. Any Palestinian leader who would succeed in bringing about their release will receive instant and widespread public sympathy.

The prime minister's statements must not remain empty words - especially not now, when a practical opportunity for dialogue with a moderate Palestinian leadership has presented itself. Now that Gaza has fallen into Hamas' hands, no effort should be spared in the attempt to salvage the West Bank from extremists. Barghouti as a free leader could greatly assist in achieving that.