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Prisoner swap: Marwan for Gilad?

The fate of Marwan Barghouthi and Cpl. Gilad Shalit could factor into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations before a Middle East peace conference scheduled for next month.

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More than 11,000 Palestinian prisoners are in Israeli jails. One Israeli soldier, captured 16 months ago, is being held by Palestinians in Gaza.

Behind the new push for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation are reports of talks about a possible controversial trade-off that could see the release of two of those prisoners. Such a deal could buy goodwill from both sides as negotiations heat up before a Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., scheduled for late November.

That swap could look like this: In exchange for Cpl. Gilad Shalit, nabbed by Hamas in June 2006, Israel would free a significant number of prisoners, possibly including Marwan Barghouthi, a Fatah leader arrested by Israel more than five years ago and convicted on five counts of murder and one of attempted murder.

Officially, Israel says its policy is that it will not release Palestinians "with blood on their hands." Prosecutors in Mr. Barghouthi's trial charged that he ordered attacks on Israelis during the height of the intifada, which started in September 2000.

The possibility of such a release does not exactly conjure up talk of reconciliation and understanding. Rather, it's a window into the machinations behind Palestinian politics and it provides a glimpse into why, even as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Jerusalem Sunday to meet with Israelis and Palestinians ahead of the November conference, internal rivalries are an inexhaustible source of complication.

Barghouthi's wife, Fadwa, says Israel's reasoning – that he has "blood on his hands" – for keeping her husband in jail is "propaganda." "Even if we have blood on our hands, don't their soldiers also have blood on their hands? That's what a prisoner exchange is supposed to be: recognizing that we've both hurt each other."

In opinion polls, Barghouthi is one of the most well-liked Palestinian leaders. Even from jail, he's mediated several disputes between Hamas and Fatah. But his relative youth, popularity, and street credibility make him a potential threat to Palestinians in power.

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