Free Barghouti

Not that Barghouti is a righteous man in a place where there are no righteous men, but he does not have "blood on his hands."

Before his trip to the United States and during the visit, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he was bringing with him a large number of surprises if only Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) would agree to meet with him finally. The chairman of the Palestinian Authority cannot even imagine what would await him during such a meeting, which has been delayed for months and years: One meeting on the bush is better than two to three fulfilled promises in the hand. That's how it always is when one travels to the Oval Room: mountains and hills on the way there, plains and valleys on the way back. The road to Ramallah passes through Washington, and it is about 10,000 kilometers long.

Marwan Barghouti is not going anywhere. He is sitting in Hadarim Prison and serving five life sentences, to which he was sentenced by a civil court. "Informed sources" made sure to publicize the fact that there is no chance of releasing him in the context of the deal for exchanging prisoners and kidnapped soldiers - the deal that will free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The Israeli government does not agree to release Barghouti, and that's final. And that is another of its mistakes.

Not that Barghouti is a righteous man in a place where there are no righteous men, but he does not have "blood on his hands." At worst, his blood rose to his head in the wake of the targeted and unfortunate assassination of his friend Raed Karmi. It is possible that Barghouti bears responsibility for terror attacks, but this is the "responsibility of the dispatcher" (which in itself is serious and grounds for conviction). The problem is that there is no person on the other side who is entirely free of such responsibility - and who is free of it on our side? Everyone here has already immersed himself once in the river of blood, and it is in fact possible to immerse twice in this river, in the same blood of the innocent. Everyone with whom we have sat at the negotiating table (and will sit with in future) is unfortunately stigmatized as a dispatcher of terrorists, and Barghouti is no better and no worse.

Chaotic Palestinian politics is also divided into two main camps, and all the rest are splinter groups and splinters of splinters: The moderate camp recognizes Israel and is willing to accepts its existence, and the radical-extremist camp, which is adhering to its refusal, is unwilling to compromise and considers Israel a foreign element that must be uprooted. Although Israel is making every effort to blur the boundaries between the two camps and to turn them into one, Barghouti still belongs to the camp of the reconciled, and there is no authorized body in Israel that would deny this assessment. From prison he supported the election of Abu Mazen as PA chair, although he had the power to interfere with this choice.

Inside prison he formulated the "prisoners' document" drawn up by Fatah and Hamas members, which calls for the establishment of two states based on the 1967 borders, adopts previous agreements between the sides and abandons the armed struggle in the unoccupied territories. This is not a perfect document that Israelis are invited to sign, but it is unquestionably a reasonable basis for discussion.

There will be no third Palestinian camp that is more convenient for Israel. There will be no leader more desirable to Israel than Barghouti. When you look around, you cannot identify any Palestinian leader more popular than he. Only a few days ago a survey was conducted in the refugee camps in Lebanon, and once again it turned out that even there Barghouti is popular with his people - more so than Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal and much more than Abu Mazen. The Israeli prison turned him into a martyr and gives him a courageous, clean and popular image; Barghouti is a shaheed in his lifetime.

It's true Abu Mazen arouses amazement and admiration for his spiritual fortitude. It is so difficult, almost inhuman, to conquer the fire of passion and not to be burned in the furnace of daily calamity. But the chairman cannot handle things on his own, and needs help. And nobody can help him more than Barghouti. With Barghouti at his side, Abu Mazen will sit at the negotiating table without his chair wobbling beneath him.

And what will happen one fine day when Abu Mazen is out of the picture? Who exactly will succeed him? In the situation that has been created, only a habitual refuser from Hamas will be the successor, because the weak Fatah organization has no natural replacement at present. Will Israel continue to hold Barghouti in prison, as long as he doesn't weaken prematurely as well? Is this Olmert's secret plan?

The day will come, and it is not far off, when in any case the imprisoned Barghouti will be appointed PA chairman or president of Palestine. And what will we do then? The entire world - and currently changing America, too - will insistently demand the immediate release of the persons chosen in democratic elections, which are the ideal of George W. Bush, the well known founder of democracies.

There is nothing new under the sun that beats down: Official Israel will always do the right thing too late. That's the way it likes to do things.