RAMALLAH, WEST BANK: A prominent Palestinian uprising leader imprisoned by Israel could soon emerge as the key to keeping fragile U.S.-led peace efforts alive.
According to several top officials, the Palestinians are seeking the freedom of Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life sentences for his alleged role in killings of Israelis, as part of any plan to extend negotiations with Israel beyond an April deadline.
A release of Barghouti, a popular figure among Palestinians, could inject new life into the troubled peace process, boost embattled Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and even provide the Palestinians with a plausible successor to their 78-year-old leader.
But Israel seems unlikely to approve the request, setting the stage for a possible breakdown in the talks.
Under heavy U.S. pressure, Israel and the Palestinians restarted negotiations last July, setting a nine-month target for wrapping up a comprehensive peace deal establishing a Palestinian state and ending a century of conflict. After realizing this was unrealistic, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry scaled back his ambitions and said he would aim for a “framework” peace deal by the April deadline.
With even that more modest goal in question, the sides are now searching for a formula that will allow the talks to continue.
The Palestinians have been skeptical about the chances of success, distrusting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A prolonging of the talks means continuing shelving of their previous plans to press for recognition, even without a peace deal, with various international bodies.
The Palestinians have two demands for an extension: a freeze in Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem and the release of the most senior prisoners held by Israel, first and foremost Barghouti, two Palestinian officials said.