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Analysis: The "Palestinian Nelson Mandela"

Marwan Barghouti, serving five life sentences in an Israeli jail, is a key sticking point in negotiations between Israel and Hamas over kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit.

Palestinian children hold a poster depicting jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti during a rally to mark the founding of Fatah in 1965, in the West Bank village of Idhna near Hebron, Jan. 7, 2008. (Nayef Hashlamoun/Reuters)

KOBAR, West Bank — The most important man in Palestinian politics is neither president nor prime minister. He doesn’t shuttle between meetings at the U.S. ambassador’s residence and the Israeli foreign ministry. In fact, he doesn’t go anywhere. He’s in an Israeli jail.

Marwan Barghouti, 50, is serving five life sentences handed down by an Israeli court for the murders of a number of Israelis and a foreigner between 2000 and 2002. Though Barghouti was a leader of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the rival group Hamas is demanding his release in return for the freedom of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped and held in the Gaza Strip.

The release of Barghouti, who’s sometimes called “the Palestinian Nelson Mandela,” is a key sticking point in negotiations between Israel and Hamas over Shalit. Israeli officials are prepared to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including many who killed Israelis in terror attacks. But Barghouti is among a coterie of senior Palestinian politicians Israel doesn’t want to give up.

Why is that so important? Because many Palestinians see Barghouti as a leader who can reunite them, at a time when they’re deeply divided — Fatah against Hamas, Gaza against the West Bank, pro-Iranian against pro-U.S.

A fluent Hebrew-speaker, he has a record as favoring the old Oslo peace accords with Israel, while refusing to eschew violence, which he regards as the right of an occupied people. That makes many Palestinians feel he’d lead them toward peace with a firmer hand than their current leadership, which they often see as weak in the face of American pressure and apparent Israeli intransigence.

Could Barghouti do it? Well, this tiny, bustling, barrel-chested charmer had the power to break the Palestinians apart with the second intifada. Perhaps he retains the street cred to do the job in reverse.

Most journalists explain the onset of the intifada’s violence in 2000 with tales of faltering peace talks or “provocative” visits to the Aqsa Mosque compound by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon. I’d sum it up differently. With two words: Marwan Barghouti.

When Yasser Arafat returned to govern the Palestinians in 1994, he divided his leadership. The “Outside” leaders, who returned from decades in Lebanon and Europe, sewed up all the best jobs in the ministries and the security establishment. With disdain, Palestinians called them “the Tunisians,” after their last place of exile.

The “Inside” leadership, in turn, felt cheated. They had lived through the occupation and been jailed during the tough years of the first intifada, which they, after all, had headed and which had been the point of pressure that led to Israel’s willingness to make a peace deal at all.

Barghouti headed the Inside leaders. Born in Kobar, this small, welcoming village in a glen near Ramallah, he co-founded the Fatah youth movement in his teens, was first arrested by Israel at 18, and was key to the first intifada, which began in 1987. (He was deported to Jordan by the Israelis and coordinated the intifada from there.)