A Mideast Mandela?

Fadwa Barghouti was accustomed to 1 a.m. phone calls. The wife of Israel's most prominent Palestinian prisoner, Fadwa had spent months lobbying people on the phone and in person on her husband's behalf. This time Yasir Arafat was on the line, according to Palestinians familiar with the details. In a short but dramatic conversation last month, the Palestinian leader told Fadwa her husband would be freed within 48 hours. "I didn't know what to think," she said in the living room of her home in the West Bank town of Ramallah last week. For two days, she waited restlessly for word from prison and tried to calm her anxious children, who hadn't seen their father since his arrest 14 months earlier. The anticipation was so overwhelming that, at one point, Fadwa unplugged the phone. When the deadline came and went, she concluded that Arafat had been mistaken--Marwan Barghouti would remain in jail.

For now, anyway. Barghouti is on trial for directing the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and having a hand in the killing of at least 26 Israelis. In court last week, he continued to challenge Israel's authority to try him, declaring that "no Palestinian can get justice from Israeli judges." But while Barghouti, 44, is the biggest fish Israel has netted in nearly three years of fighting, the government is coming under increasing pressure to free him. Palestinians insist he's the one figure who could give Prime Minister Abu Mazen the street legitimacy he sorely lacks. Europeans point to the way Barghouti last month orchestrated a provisional Palestinian ceasefire. Even in Washington, where pressuring Israel is considered politically risky, some officials are saying aloud that springing him could be in the Jewish state's interests. "People like me understand people's checkered past. But we balance that with a search for anyone who can actually command authority to end violence," says U.S. Congressman Mark Steven Kirk, a Republican from Illinois.

Barghouti is certainly a man of authority, but Israel claims he's used his clout mainly to foment violence. A member of Arafat's Fatah faction since high school, Barghouti was imprisoned by Israel in the late 1970s for plotting attacks and was later deported. He returned to the West Bank in 1994, after Israel and the PLO reached an accord, and got elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council. But when peacemaking broke down, he was among the first Palestinians to call for a new uprising.

The more Barghouti became identified with the uprising, the higher his popularity climbed. Since his arrest last year on charges of heading Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades--an --armed wing of Fatah that has killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and suicide attacks--Barghouti consistently shows up in opinion polls with more public support than anyone but Arafat. For Mazen, who's been critical of the violence and whose own approval rating hovers around 3 percent, the statistic must be disconcerting.

Barghouti's advocates say the jailed leader showed his worth last month by coaxing militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad into accepting a three-month ceasefire--a windfall for Abbas, whose own efforts to arrange a truce had fallen short. Khader Shkirat, one of his lawyers, carried a four-page letter dictated by Barghouti to Damascus, where leaders of Hamas met to consider the proposal. "I sat in the prison with him for several hours. He's not allowed to give me anything, so instead he dictated the letter and I scribbled it in a notebook," Shkirat says. Palestinians who've read the letter say it's Barghouti's assessment that a ceasefire would shift international pressure from the Palestinians to Israel.

Shkirat and other Fatah delegates spent four days with Hamas leaders in Damascus before winning approval for the Barghouti proposal. Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah deputy, says the Islamic group was poised to reject it on the third day of talks but relented mainly because it was Barghouti's initiative. "It shows that Marwan has credibility not only in Fatah but also in Hamas and Islamic Jihad," Ghneim said in his Ramallah office. "And it proves Marwan can deliver."

The implication is not lost on Washington. Kirk, the congressman, would like to meet Barghouti during a trip to Israel he plans to make in August, but only if the jailed Palestinian is freed. And a Western diplomat posted in the region says comparisons made to the situation South Africa faced with Nelson Mandela are not unwarranted. Mazen is the kind of leader Washington wants, the diplomat says, but he's not strong enough internally to be viewed as a long-term leader. "We have to look past the Mazen era and ask ourselves who is able to get the respect of the people and carry on with the peace process. I don't see anyone like that but Barghouti," the diplomat says.

That kind of analysis engenders talk of a prisoner swap. In the past, Israel freed hundreds of Palestinians to bring home a handful of POWs. One Palestinian cabinet minister, Ghassan Khatib, told NEWSWEEK that Egypt had offered to give up convicted Israeli spy Azzam Azzam as part of a deal involving Barghouti's release. Israeli media have referred to a potentially broader swap that would include the United States' freeing Jonathan Pollard, a naval intelligence officer serving a life sentence for selling secrets to Israel. Something in those reports might have prompted the phone call Arafat made to Fadwa Barghouti last month.

Gideon Ezra, a retired officer in Israel's Shabak security agency who is now a member of Sharon's cabinet, doesn't rule out an exchange. "I can tell you that Israel will be ready to do a lot to free Pollard and Azzam Azzam. Israel will be willing to do anything for it," he says. Ezra sits on a government committee that weighs which Palestinian prisoners should go home as a confidence-building measure in the Mideast peace process. But short of a swap, he says, Barghouti will have to serve out whatever term the judges hand down next month.

If that's the case, Fadwa Barghouti will probably have to wait a long time before she has her husband back home. As a lawyer, Fadwa is part of the team defending Barghouti. During his imprisonment, she's visited 17 countries to raise support for her husband. In countries like France and Belgium, she says, people broadly believe that for the peace process to continue, her husband must be released. "They understand and believe that Marwan wants peace for the two countries, Israel and Palestine," Fadwa Barghouti says. Most Israelis are still waiting to be convinced.