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Marwan Barghouti is the next leader of the Palestinian people, a senior Israeli official said.

National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said Tuesday that Israel, which jailed Barghouti, a charismatic Fatah lawmaker and terrorist, for life in 2003, should now consider freeing him as means of offsetting the influence of Islamist Hamas.

“Anyone who has the safety of life in Israel in mind knows there is no alternative to releasing Marwan Barghouti because he is the strongest party on the Palestinian side,” Ben-Eliezer told Army Radio.

“In my humble opinion, this man will be the next leader of the Palestinians,” he added. “For us he is a murderer, but Arafat was no less a murderer than he, and yet Rabin extended his hand to him. We have to think differently and make an effort in this direction.”

Ben-Eliezer said any clemency for Barghouti should be conditioned on the release by Hamas of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held hostage in the Gaza Strip since June 2006.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out releasing Barghouti. But political sources recently revealed that his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, proposed letting the Fatah leader go in exchange for the United States granting an early release to jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Washington rebuffed that idea.

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