RAMALLAH, West Bank – While a possible Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap focuses on a famous Israeli soldier, the prisoner most likely to affect the direction of Mideast peace is a brash and chubby Palestinian long seen as a potential successor to his people's aging president.
Marwan Barghouti is the most popular Palestinian leader since Yasser Arafat. He has spent the last seven years in an Israeli prison after being convicted of playing a role in attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.
A lifetime member of President Mahmoud Abbas' venerable and corruption-riddled Fatah movement, Barghouti is seen as perhaps the group's best chance to restore its eroded credibility. Many Palestinians — and some Israelis — see him as the only figure capable of bridging the myriad rifts among Palestinians and leading them toward their long elusive dream of statehood.
Barghouti is a secularist who works with Islamists. He supports negotiations with Israel, speaks fluent Hebrew and has Israeli friends, but he built his reputation through anti-Israel diatribes during the second Palestinian uprising.
Detractors in Israel call Barghouti a cold-blooded killer who should remain locked up. The Likud hard-liners who will head the incoming Israeli government are likely to share that view. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu will likely be forming a new Israeli government within six weeks, making the timing of a swap important for those who hope to see Barghouti released.
A possible prisoner exchange surfaced in discussions for a long-term cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, where the recent Israeli military offensive to halt Hamas rockets killed some 1,300 Palestinians. Israel is anxious for the release of Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was snatched by Hamas-affiliated militants during a 2006 raid into Israel.
Amos Gilad, until recently Israel's lead Gaza negotiator, had wanted to first clinch a truce with Gaza's Hamas rulers through the Egyptian-brokered talks, then strike a deal to swap Schalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. But Gilad was fired by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert after Gilad criticized Olmert's demand that Schalit be freed before any agreement is signed.
Even if Barghouti is released — negotiations have hit new snags in recent days — the thorny Palestinian political scene could prevent him from realizing the lofty hopes his supporters have attached to him.
Barghouti's first challenge would be inside his own Fatah party. Corruption allegations have diminished its standing, and a muted response to Israel's recent Gaza war has undermined Abbas' popularity. There is no guarantee the party's old guard would step aside for Barghouti.
An even bigger challenge would be rebuilding relations with Hamas, the militant Islamic group that seized control of the Gaza Strip in a brief but bloody civil war in June 2007, leaving Abbas only in charge of the West Bank. All attempts at reconciliation have failed.
Barghouti, 49, enjoys a man-of-the-people reputation. He was born in a village near Ramallah and was seven years old when Israel occupied the West Bank, along with Gaza and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Middle East War.
Israel imprisoned him at age 18 for his Fatah membership, then deported him to Jordan in 1987. He returned in 1994, following mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO. As Fatah chief in the West Bank, he tried to rally support for a peace deal with Israel, but became disillusioned, saying Israel kept breaking promises.
Yossi Beilin, a leading Israeli dove now retired from politics, met often with Barghouti in those days. The last time was in May 2000, when peace efforts had stalled.
"He said to me, `If there is no peace, there will be violence, and we will be in charge of this violence,'" said Beilin, who was Israel's justice minister at the time.
The second Palestinian uprising broke out four months later, following a failed U.S.-hosted Mideast summit, and Barghouti quickly emerged as the public face of the revolt.
Israel arrested him in April 2002, saying he served as a liaison between Arafat and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a Fatah-allied militia that killed dozens of Israelis in shooting attacks and suicide bombings. Barghouti denied the charges, but Israel convicted him in the shooting deaths of the four Israelis and the Greek monk and sentenced him to five life sentences.
Beilin said Barghouti appeals to ordinary Palestinians because of his down-to-earth style. "He's very close to the roots, he knows the Palestinian people very well and is appreciated by them, but who knows what kind of leader he will make?" Beilin said.
Palestinian public opinion expert Khalil Shikaki said Barghouti has remained free of corruption allegations and has supported both negotiations and armed resistance, giving him credibility across the Palestinian divide.
"These characteristics put him in a place where he can lead Fatah to reach an agreement with Israel and convince the members of Hamas to accept this agreement," Shikaki said.
But first he must be released — something many Israelis oppose.
Hawkish legislator Yuval Steinitz declined to comment on Barghouti's possible release to avoid interfering with negotiations, though he has vocally opposed it in the past. Barghouti is a convicted murderer, he has said, whose release would "ridicule our justice system."