An Israeli Cabinet minister on Tuesday said that the most powerful Palestinian leader is serving a term in an Israeli prison and he must be released to lead the Palestinian people toward reconciliation with the Jewish state.
The remarks by National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer followed earlier calls by other Israeli politicians to free Marwan Barghouti. Israeli government officials said the issue is not on the agenda.
Barghouti, a leader of the moderate President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party, is serving five consecutive life terms for masterminding the killing of four Israelis and a Greek monk in West Bank attacks.
But he is the most popular leader in the Palestinian territories, is widely regarded as the only figure able to unify rival Palestinian factions and is seen as a successor to Abbas.
Barghouti could become the future leader of the Palestinian people since he has the respect of Fatah's rival, the Hamas militant group, Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio. And since Barghouti favors the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he could help bring progress in future peace talks, he added.
"We're not talking about a friend of Zion," Ben-Eliezer said. "We're talking about what is good for the state of Israel ... and how to find a breakthrough."
Two other prominent politicians, including Environment Minister Gideon Ezra, have also called for Barghouti's release.
Israeli lawmaker Effie Eitam of the hawkish National Union Party lambasted Ben-Eliezer, saying Israelis would never accept it due to Barghouti's militant past.
"Tell them how an archmurderer suddenly became the hope of the state of Israel for peace," Eitam told Army Radio. "There is nothing more unheard of or fraudulent than this."
Palestinian officials have repeatedly called for the release of Barghouti, who has remained a prominent player in Palestinian politics from behind bars. But Israel has repeatedly ruled out the request.
Israel is slated to release 87 Palestinian prisoners next week in a move to bolster Abbas in his power struggle against Hamas. None of the prisoners is serving time for participating in attacks on Israelis.