JERUSALEM – Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is quietly seeking the release from Israeli prison of Marwan Barghouti, the accused architect of the Palestinian intifada, the terror campaign against the Jewish state that began in September 2000, according to informed Israeli and Palestinian diplomatic sources.
The sources say Abbas eventually wants to be replaced by Barghouti as the new chairman of the PLO Executive Committee and believes the imprisoned strongman is the best candidate to assume leadership of the PA.
The diplomatic sources say Abbas is reviewing methods of lobbying the U.S. to get behind an initiative to petition Israel to request the release of Barghouti. Abbas is presenting Barghouti as a uniting figure who could impose law and order in the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Following months of rumors that Abbas wants to retire, Amin Maqboul, secretary-general of the Central Committee of Abbas’s Fatah party, told Palestinian media Tuesday that leaders of Fatah unanimously rejected Abbas’s decision not to seek re-election to the PLO Executive Committee.
The move is seen as the first step toward Abbas stepping down as PA president, which he has threatened to do on numerous occasions.
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Maqboul quoted Abbas as saying he was disappointed in the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian talks and also wants to see younger, fresher faces govern the PLO.
Earlier this week, Jordanian sources told the Palestinian media that Abbas also expressed his intention to resign as PA president during a meeting earlier this week with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman.
According to Palestinian sources, Abbas sees Barghouti as loyal to his own personal interests. The sources said Abbas fears that if he steps down without Barghouti’s release, the man with the best chances of filling the power vacuum could be Fatah moderate Mahmad Dahlan, who currently lives in the Persian Gulf.
There is much personal bad blood between Abbas and Dahlan, and Abbas sees Dahlan as a threat to his interests in the Palestinian territories as well as in Fatah camps in Lebanon and Syria, according to the diplomatic sources.
Barghouti is serving five life sentences plus 40 years in jail for his role in killings Israeli civilians, including allegedly planning multiple deadly suicide attacks.
He is a confessed founder of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist organization associated with Abbas’ Fatah party.
Al Aqsa, designated as a terrorist group by the State Department, has carried out scores of suicide bombings and deadly shooting attacks, and has fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza at Israeli towns.
Barghouti has long been seen as a contender for the PA presidency, with polling data finding the jailed strongman popular among Palestinians.