Kevin Frayer/AP

U.S. discussed releasing Israeli spy to salvage peace talks

Israeli leaders have long requested the release of Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel in the 1980s

The U.S. has discussed the early release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of negotiations to release Palestinian prisoners and salvage the current round of peace talks, two senior U.S. officials told Al Jazeera on Monday. Pollard’s release had been strenuously opposed by the U.S. intelligence community.

The two officials stressed that no deal had yet been reached, and that even if a deal was agreed, Pollard — who is due for parole next year — would not be released immediately. They spoke as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to the Middle East to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Monday, in the hope of keeping alive the current round of talks around a framework for final-status negotiations.

Those talks have stalled after Israel decided not to release the fourth and final tranche of Palestinian prisoners promised under an earlier agreement. Palestinian negotiators said they would not continue talks unless those prisoners were released.

Pollard's release, which has been a long-standing Israeli request of successive U.S. governments, was consistently opposed by the U.S. intelligence establishment throughout. A former U.S. Naval intelligence officer who was granted Israeli citizenship while in prison, Pollard has been incarcerated since 1985, when he was caught passing sensitive documents to Israel. According to a declassified 1987 CIA report on his case, Pollard had “eagerly seized an opportunity to volunteer for Israeli intelligence” and was tasked with stealing U.S. information about Arab and Pakistani nuclear intelligence and the U.S.'s targeting of Soviet defense systems.

The State Department last week denied speculation that Pollard’s release was a potential quid-pro-quo in the current negotiations with Israel, but spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged that the issue “comes up from time to time.”

Israeli leaders and others who favor clemency for Pollard argue that he spied for the benefit of Israel rather than out of malice for the U.S. But Washington has rejected every clemency request by Israeli leaders since his imprisonment, arguing that Pollard had in fact done irreparable damage to U.S. national security. An attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1998 to obtain Pollard’s release as part of an incentive for the Wye River agreement with the Palestinians was rebuffed by Bill Clinton’s administration, after fierce opposition from the U.S. intelligence community.

When asked on Monday whether Pollard's release could be offered as an incentive to Israel, the White House said it had no new information on the situation.

“He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence, and I don’t have any update on his situation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Mark Perry, a military analyst and author who served as an unofficial adviser to former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, noted that rumors of Pollard's release have surfaced previously when talks were at an impasse. He also said that offering clemency was highly unlikely this time around, as always.

"You can imagine TV images of Pollard showing up in Israel to standing ovations, as if spying on the U.S. makes him a hero," said Perry. "If Obama were to give him clemency the hue and cry from the intelligence committee would be unbelievable."

Reporting for this story by Nick Schifrin

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