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.
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."
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.