Israel should release convicted terrorist Marwan Barghouti from prison and should remove all obstacles to ensure the Palestinians are able to hold fair elections, Palestinian negotiation minister Saeb Erekat told WorldNetDaily.
"Israel had no jurisdiction to arrest a Palestinian official and try him in Israel," said Erekat. "He should be released."
Changing his mind yet again, Barghouti earlier this week withdrew his bid to run in the upcoming Palestinian presidential elections, throwing his support to PLO chairman and now front-runner Mahmoud Abbas.
In a statement read by his campaign manager, Ahmed Ghneim, Barghouti, a founder of the terror group Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades who was recently sentenced in Israel to five life terms for planning gun ambushes and a suicide bombing, said he wanted to act in the "Palestinian national interest" and back Abbas, the official candidate for the dominant Palestinian faction Fatah.
"I again stress my support to brother Abu Mazen (Abbas), the nominee of the movement who is a dear friend and somebody who deserves the position of president," his statement said.
"I wish him every success in his mission on the road to achieving freedom, the return (of refugees), independence, peace and national democracy."
Barghouti had been under massive internal pressure to withdraw from the campaign. Senior Fatah officials reportedly told him that his candidacy threatened to split Fatah down the middle.
Earlier this month, Barghouti had decided to take back a previous pledge to abstain from running in the PA elections, announcing his candidacy for president as an independent. WorldNetDaily reported at the time the decision came after a deal brokered earlier by Fatah leaders fell through. The deal would have made Barghouti the Palestinian Authority vice president and obligated Fatah to launch a campaign to secure his release from prison.
It is unclear whether or not such a deal was reached this time, but a Fatah campaign on behalf of Barghouti's freedom could lead to increased international pressure on Israel to release him.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior official with the Mossad and past director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, wrote yesterday Israel is not likely to release Barghouti from Israeli custody "unless U.S. President Bush unexpectedly offers to free Jonathan Pollard in return, an offer that Sharon would find it hard to refuse."
There have been reports the past few weeks of diplomatic talks about a three-way prisoner exchange deal that would release Barghouti, and involve Egypt freeing Israeli textile engineer Azzam Azzam and America releasing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
Azzam was freed by Egypt Dec. 5.
Erekat also called on the U.S. to monitor Palestinian elections in January by providing "as many observers as possible. American staffers should be here on the ground and check against Israeli soldiers blocking Palestinians from moving freely in the West Bank and Gaza, and making sure Israel lets candidates express themselves freely."
Bio Note: 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.