Convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti has decided to run for PA president from his jail cell in Israel and will announce his candidacy within 24 hours, a Fatah official said today.
Reports list Barghouti, who was recently sentenced to five life terms for planning gun ambushes and a suicide bombing and is a founder of the terror group Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, as the widely favored candidate, and his bid to run in the January 9 election would pose a major challenge to current front runner and former PA prime minister Mahmoud Abbas, who does not enjoy widespread popular approval.
"He has decided to run for president," the official, who said he had spoken with Barghouthi's lawyer, told reporters. "An official announcement will be made within 24 hours."
The decision could lead to increased international pressure on Israel to release Barghouti in the immediate future.
Israeli officials said last week they may release several jailed Palestinians as a "goodwill gesture" toward the future PA leadership. There have been a few reports that Barghouti may be considered for release, but Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is said to have rejected the idea.
Even with Jerusalem officially dismissing the possibility of releasing Barghouti, Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz speculated last week, "We are looking for a partner for the Gaza withdrawal. It seems that this will have to include releasing prisoners ... [perhaps even] including Barghouti."
There have been talks in diplomatic circles of a three-way prisoner exchange deal that would release Barghouti, allowing him to run in PA elections, and would also involve America releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard and Egypt freeing imprisoned Israeli textile engineer Azzam Azzam.
In an explosive development this week, Pollard told WorldNetDaily Israel has held clandestine meetings with Barghouti throughout the Palestinian leader's imprisonment, and has been grooming Barghouti as a candidate to succeed the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
In a speech delivered on his behalf at a Jerusalem rally Sunday, Pollard claimed, "Officially, Israel insists it will never free Marwan Bargouhti. He is a murderer sentenced to multiple life sentences. Freeing him, they claim, would undermine the rule of law. Unofficially, sources, including one very close to the prime minister, admit that Israel has been grooming Barghouti in prison to be the next leader of the Palestinian people."
Pollard says that "when news of the proposed three-way deal broke, my close contacts began to investigate, and learned important things from reliable sources in the U.S. and Israel."
"It is an open secret in Israel that top officials have been secretly meeting with Barghouti throughout his incarceration. He is taken out of his prison cell and brought to clandestine locations for these meetings, to enlist his help in promoting various initiatives with the Palestinians, such as cease fires. These secret sessions are part of the 'grooming' process," says Pollard.
Pollard says sources told his contacts that Israel, not the PA or Barghouti's military Tanzim, leaked the story last week about Pollard and the talks aimed at putting together the three-way swap for Barghouti's release.
"Officially, Israel reviles Barghouti and dismisses any possibility of releasing him. Unofficially, Sharon's government and his closest people believe Barghouti is someone that they can work with, someone who can control the Palestinian street. They see him as someone who can unite the warring factions among the Palestinian militias and hold them in check."
Pollard says sources told him Israel has been supplying positive material to the media about Barghouti.
"More than just whitewashing Barghouti, Israel is seeking to create the impression that there is such popular support amongst the Palestinian people for Barghouti that it cannot be resisted or denied. This is an attempt to create an atmosphere where the U.S. feels it must step in and direct events. The Americans can then 'force' Israel to release Barghouti, and Israel can do so with 'clean hands,'" says Pollard.
Pollard told WorldNetDaily he is "completely opposed" to the possibility of being released from prison in a deal that would also release Barghouti, whom he refers to as "a mass murderer of Jews."
Barghouti is serving multiple life terms for his role in the killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk. Israeli security sources also tell WorldNetDaily Barghouti was one of the architects of the current intifada, the terrorist war waged on Israel after Arafat, at Camp David in 2000, turned down an offer of a Palestinian State in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Barghouti has been arrested and jailed several times, including a four-year stint that began in 1978 for planning terror attacks against Israelis. He was arrested again in 1985 before being deported to Jordan in 1987, where Israel says he played a key role in starting the first Palestinian intifada.
Barghouti was among hundreds of Palestinian deportees allowed to return to the West Bank upon the signature of the Palestinian-Israeli interim Oslo peace accords in 1993. But Israel says he continued to plot several Palestinian attacks, and was instrumental in the founding and supporting of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a terrorist group that carried out several suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.
"It is a pitiful suggestion to take a man whose entire reputation rests on his expertise in violence and whose popularity rests on him being a convicted terrorist, and see him as a future leader," Uzi Arad, former director of Mossad's intelligence division and chairman of Israel's prestigious Herzliya Conference told WorldNetDaily yesterday in an exclusive interview. "His popularity is a travesty. It is like making the Godfather the chief of police!"
Aaron Klein is WorldNetDaily's special Middle East correspondent, whose past interview subjects have included Yasser Arafat, Ehud Barak, Shlomo Ben Ami and leaders of the Taliban.