RAMALLAH, West Bank - He was the prize catch of an Israeli army sweep through the West Bank 14 months ago, and he stands accused of helping to instigate the Palestinian uprising and ordering the killing of Israeli civilians.
But from his Israeli jail cell, and with his murder trial under way in Tel Aviv, 44-year- old Marwan Barghouti has been orchestrating a potentially significant step toward a permanent peace settlement: a cease-fire acceptable to Palestinian militants.
Talking on a smuggled cell phone - one that jail guards confiscated two weeks ago - and using the only visitor he is allowed, his lawyer Jawad Boulos, as a go-between, Barghouti helped draft a cease-fire document and is trying to persuade leaders of militant groups to agree to it.
While American and Israeli officials have backed similar efforts by Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, it is the imprisoned Barghouti who appears to have the respect of the Palestinian public.
"Without Marwan, it is not even possible to have the subject of a cease-fire discussed," said Qadura Faris, a Palestinian legislator from Ramallah and a leader of the Fatah faction headed by Yasser Arafat.
The role of Barghouti, who organized support for a truce among fellow prisoners, is also a sign of Abbas' weakness. After Abbas failed on several trips to Gaza to persuade militant leaders to abandon violence, Barghouti, through his lawyer, dispatched Faris to Damascus, Syria.
In an interview yesterday, Faris called the talks productive and said he conveyed that it was in the best interest of all Palestinians to give Abbas a chance at diplomacy. He said he briefed Abbas upon his return last week.
"They are against this peace plan, this road map," Faris said of the head of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. "But we all agreed that we must work together, that we must unite behind the cause of the Palestinians, and not the point of view of all the factions."
It might be only a short-term solution. Hamas and Islamic Jihad oppose negotiations with Israel and vow to defeat the Jewish state. "But they understand that for now, we have to give these talks a chance," Faris said. "But not by raising the white flag."
Ziad Abu Eim, a 43-year-old Fatah leader, was released last week from an Israeli jail where he had been held for 14 months for hiding Barghouti until his arrest. Eim suggests that only Barghouti can help the Palestinians - fed up with Arafat and distrustful of Abbas - out of their predicament.
"We are a logical people, and while it is hard, we know that the violence is no longer logical or helpful," Eim said. "It is Marwan who can convince the other factions that we need a cease-fire. But it can only work if it leads to the end of occupation."
A senior Palestinian official called Barghouti's efforts helpful, but not necessarily critical to stopping the violence. Still, the official said that Abbas has worked hard to try and win Barghouti's release, which he acknowledged would bolster Abbas' reputation.
"We know that having him free would be a tremendous vote of confidence," the official said on the condition he not be named. "He enjoys wide support among the Palestinian population."
Israeli and Palestinian leaders expressed confidence yesterday that a cease-fire accord was close. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders were to meet in Cairo to discuss final details, though it was unclear how long a truce might last and what conditions might be attached.
Militant leaders want guarantees that Israel will release Palestinian prisoners and stop targeting militant leaders. Israeli officials have balked at both proposals and are wary of a truce, viewing it as a tactical move that would allow the militants time to regroup, and as an inadequate substitute for dismantling and disarming the factions.
Palestinians want a cease-fire in place before the Israeli army withdraws from Palestinian areas in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian police would then be expected to reassert control and prevent attacks on Israeli positions - a key component of an American-backed peace plan.
Despite weeks of negotiations, Abbas has been unable to secure a cease-fire. Some reports say that the prime minister enlisted the help of Barghouti to break the impasse, while others say Barghouti stepped in on his own.
Barghouti was a dominant figure at the beginning of the Palestinian uprising, in October 2000, leading rock-throwing youths in Ramallah. A member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Barghouti talked tough in front of the cameras, which he never ignored. He managed to incite the crowds while avoiding a direct call to arms.
As the leader of a young generation of Fatah members, Barghouti is seen as a possible successor to Arafat. The Israeli army saw Barghouti as a threat, a man who hid behind politics to help organize attacks on Israeli civilians. At his murder trial, Israeli prosecutors are trying to prove that the uprising was ordered by the Palestinian political leadership.
Barghouti, on the other hand, is trying to put the Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza on trial, and he has the platform to do it. He shows up in court handcuffed and flanked by police but often manages to dominate the proceedings by shouting down judges and lawyers.
He walks in holding his bound hands in the air, making a fist, smiling all the way and refusing to participate, calling the trial a sham. If convicted, he could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Barghouti rarely misses an opportunity. At his latest appearance earlier this month, he reminded the judge that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had used the word "occupation" to describe the army's presence in the West Bank and argued that his case should be dismissed.
"If your prime minister recognizes there is occupation," he shouted, "what do you expect people under occupation to do? To resist."
Rumors of release
Two weeks ago, rumors flew that Sharon was about to free Barghouti to help advance the peace process. The stories took on a life of their own, to the point that Israel's attorney general urged Sharon to reconsider, saying a release would undermine the justice system.
There was never any intent to release Barghouti, and Faris - who himself spent 14 years in Israeli jails, from 1980 to 1994 - said yesterday that the rumors were spread by people inside Fatah to sabotage peace talks, by making Hamas think Barghouti wanted a truce only for his own personal gain.
Barghouti is being held in a prison in Ramle, near Ben Gurion International Airport. He was put in solitary confinement after discovery of his cell phone. He is allowed to see only his lawyer, Boulos, who can talk to him through a fence. No documents are allowed to exchange hands.
Faris said that it is through these meetings that Barghouti has managed to play an instrumental role in the cease-fire talks. He also organized fellow prisoners, including those from secular and Islamic factions, to agree to a truce accord.