Jailed Palestinian militant key to Mideast talks

Abbas pushes for Barghouti's release to save negotiations

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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 in 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 told The Associated Press -- senior official Nabil Shaath and Prisoner Affairs Minister Issa Qaraqi.

Israel was already forced to release dozens of prisoners convicted of deadly violence to make the current round of talks possible, but Barghouti remains jailed.

With Israel not expected to halt settlement construction, the Palestinians say they will drive a tough bargain on the prisoner issue. Palestinian officials and Barghouti's family said Abbas raised the issue of Barghouti's release in his White House meeting this week with President Barack Obama.

"President Abbas demanded the release of the political leaders in jail like Marwan Barghouti, Ahmad Saadat and Fuad Shobaki," said Qaraqi, the prisoner affairs minister.

Israeli officials said the matter has not yet come in the talks.

Saadat heads a faction that killed an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001 and is serving a 30-year sentence for allegedly participating in attacks. Shobaki, a former top Palestinian official, is the alleged mastermind of an attempt to smuggle a large shipment of weapons to the Palestinians on a ship that was intercepted by Israeli naval commandos in 2002.

But no prisoner is more prized by the Palestinians than Barghouti, who was a rising star in the dominant Fatah party before he was captured by Israeli troops in 2002. Israel says Barghouti, 54, was a leader of the violent uprising in the West Bank early last decade. He is serving five life terms for alleged involvement in the deaths of four Israelis and a Greek monk.

The Palestinians say Barghouti is a politician who had no direct involvement in any of the killings.

Barghouti's release could be critical for Abbas. The Palestinian leader has seen his popularity plummet due to the lack of progress in peace talks. Winning Barghouti's freedom would be a huge moral victory for him.