When Israeli authorities chose to put Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti on trial in a criminal court, rather than a military court, prosecutors may have set the stage for an even bigger prize: Yasser Arafat.
That possibility was given a boost last week with Barghouti's conviction on five counts of murder for Israelis killed in three separate shooting ambushes conducted by the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in 2001 and 2002.
Barghouti, the West Bank leader of Fatah, the political faction of the Palestinian Authority president, was acquitted on 21 other counts of murder for lack of evidence.
Both outcomes bolstered the argument for putting Palestinian terrorists on trial in regular Israeli courts, rather than in military courts, where the standards of evidence are not as strict. Barghouti's conviction shows that there is sufficient evidence to put terrorists behind bars using standard criminal procedures, and his acquittal on the other counts lends legitimacy to the argument that even Palestinian terrorists will get fair trials in Israel.
Though the trial served as a legal extension of the Israeli-Palestinian battleground, Israelis insisted that the trial was fair, and that Israeli judges do not function as rubber stamps for Israel's security establishment -- as evidenced by Barghouti's acquittal on most of the charges.
The judges said Barghouti could be convicted only in cases where it was proven that he had prior knowledge of imminent terrorist attacks and that he approved the attacks. The prosecution sought a ruling that would have held the head of a terrorist organization personally responsible for all attacks carried out by organization members.
That made a future conviction of Arafat more difficult, because prosecutors could win a conviction only if they can prove Arafat is directly responsibility for specific attacks.
During the Barghouti trial, the Israeli judges found Barghouti had ordered his men to go forward with attacks or suspend them, "according to instructions he had received from Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat" -- one sign that an Arafat conviction is not an impossibility.
Despite his conviction, Barghouti, 44, still is considered one of the prime candidates to succeed Arafat. Palestinians regard Barghouti as a national hero, and until the start of the intifada, Israel considered him a relative moderate who might make a good successor to Arafat. Until the late 1990s, Barghouti was considered one of the strongest Palestinian advocates for negotiations with Israel.
After 1993, he became a strong backer of the Oslo accords. He continued to rise in the Palestinian rank, and by the start of the second intifada in late 2000, Barghouti was Fatah's leader in the West Bank. Disenchanted with the deadlock in peace negotiations, Barghouti, who also was responsible for Fatah's militant offshoot, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, began giving approval to attacks against Israelis.
The Israeli court ruled that it was through the Al Aqsa Brigade that Barghouti issued orders to kill. He was brought to trial after Israeli commandos captured him in Ramallah two years ago. He was the most senior Palestinian figure ever to face trial in Israel.
He tried to turn the proceedings into a political trial. As a member of the Palestinian legislative council, he said, he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli court's right to try him.
"The intifada will continue as long as the occupation," he told the court upon his conviction, speaking at times in fluent Hebrew.
The Palestinian Authority denounced the trial and demanded Barghouti's immediate release.
With Arafat's foundering popularity and the rising power of Hamas, a figure like Barghouti may make the perfect candidate for Palestinian leadership -- both in Israel's view and that of the Palestinians.
The conviction helps ensure that Barghouti is not suspected of having a hidden agenda of collaboration with Israel. That makes him a more favorable candidate for leadership than Jibril Rajoub, Arafat's national security adviser, and Mohammad Dahlan, former minister of internal security, both of whom at times have been slammed as too close to the Israelis.
The Tel Aviv court is due to sentence Barghouti on June 6.