By all accounts, the Fatah party congress held in Bethlehem from Aug. 4 to 11 -- the first in 20 years for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' party -- was a success.
It demonstrated democracy in action, the type that the White House would no doubt like to see throughout the Arab world. Fatah party members elected their own leadership. Based on the party's predominance in the Palestinian Authority, the summit -- held for the first time within the territory -- held special importance for its political future.
Among the congress's victors was Marwan Barghouti, who directed votes for himself and his allies from inside an Israeli prison, where he is serving five consecutive life terms for his leadership role in the second intifada. Despite his physical absence, Barghouti, a shrewd and charismatic reformist, loomed large: He is now a party heavyweight with uniquely broad support among Palestinians and even Israelis. A consensus is growing that he merits a leadership role. If he wins one, it will have a major impact on Fatah's ability to tame Hamas and change the tenor of its relationship with Israel.
Barghouti came in third in voting for the Central Committee, which directs party policy. But he polled first among the "young guard" -- Fatah members minted during the two intifadas, who are now in their 40s and 50s. This group tends to be more reform-focused and grass-roots-oriented than the older Fatah leaders, including Abbas himself. It also includes businesspeople and university intellectuals. On the basis of this support, Barghouti has declared his intention to run for the presidency in 2010, even if he is still behind bars. (If Abbas decides to run again, Barghouti might run for a second-in-command spot.)
There is a possibility, though, that he might be free by the next election. In his years in prison alongside Hamas leaders, Barghouti won the respect of the Islamist movement. Today, his name is likely at the top of the list for a potential prisoner exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas has held captive for more than three years.
But the subject of Barghouti's potential release is bitterly divisive in Israel, due to his alleged role in the second intifada. Some members of the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, have called for the prisoner exchange, including former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Others, such as Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, have insisted Barghouti -- convicted for five life terms -- should never walk free.
At the same time, there is a growing acknowledgement among Israelis and Palestinians that Barghouti's broad appeal and reformist streak offer the best prospects for peace. Politicians in Israel see him as the best hope for strengthening the nationalist camp against Hamas -- ironically, due to his close ties with the opposition party and thus his ability to influence them.