Convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard could be released from a North Carolina prison in two weeks as part of a deal being negotiated with Israel to extend Middle East peace talks, according to a U.S. official close to the talks.
Under what was described to Al Jazeera as an “emerging deal,” Pollard’s freedom would be tied to Israel’s releasing a final batch of Palestinian prisoners, per a prior agreement, and agreeing to “maximum restraint” in settlement construction. The decision by Israel not to release the prisoners derailed the fragile timeline for a framework agreement on final-status negotiations.
The plan that is being considered would extend the deadline for a framework agreement past the original April 29 deadline into 2015. Also, Israel would release 400 additional Palestinian prisoners of its choosing, though high-profile prisoners like Marwan Barghouti would not be involved.
Al Jazeera was told the deal wouldn’t require Israel to freeze construction of settlements on occupied territory but would have Israel promise “maximum restraint” in construction. The U.N. Security Council deems all Israeli settlements on land captured in the war of June 1967 violations of international law, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in November said, “the position of the United States is that we consider now and have always considered the settlements to be illegitimate.”
The Pollard discussion — coinciding with Kerry’s impromptu visit to the region — is seen as an increasingly desperate attempt by the U.S. to salvage a largely ineffective round of talks. The two sides remain far apart on the fundamental issues that remain to be settled in a final-status agreement ending the conflict, including Israeli settlement, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return for displaced Palestinians.
There has been no indication Palestinians are on board with the deal being discussed. A senior Palestinian official on Monday told Al Jazeera that the Palestinians would decide on extending talks only after Israel announced the final group of prisoners will be released as promised. Otherwise, the official said, Palestinian leaders will turn to the United Nations for recognition of Palestinian statehood.
Kerry broke from his travel schedule on Monday to concentrate his efforts on salvaging the framework agreement negotiations. While in Israel, he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Kerry is set to return to Tel Aviv and Ramallah from Brussels on Wednesday.
Pollard’s release, which has been a long-standing Israeli request of successive U.S. administrations, has been consistently opposed by the U.S. intelligence establishment.
Rumors that Pollard could be released early from his life sentence have periodically surfaced in the media when Israeli-Palestinian talks hit an impasse. The State Department last week denied that Pollard’s release — just in time for Passover, under the deal — was on the table, but spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged that the issue “comes up from time to time.”
A former U.S. Navy 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. He is up for parole next year.
Israeli leaders and others who favor clemency for Pollard argue that he spied for the benefit of Israel rather than out of malice against the U.S. But Washington has rejected every clemency request by Israeli leaders since his imprisonment, arguing that he had done irreparable damage to U.S. security. An attempt by 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. Then–CIA Director George Tenet, along with a number of U.S. military leaders, threatened their immediate resignation if Clinton went ahead with the release.
“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 Mark Perry, a military analyst and author who served as an unofficial adviser to former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. “If [President Barack] Obama were to give him clemency, the hue and cry from the intelligence committee would be unbelievable.”
Others have said the offering of such a high-profile bargaining chip merely to extend talks — not even to achieve any sort of final-status breakthrough — reads as an act of U.S. desperation.
“It is extremely unusual that a convicted spy would be offered as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and past president of the Middle East Policy Council. “It’s a kind of appeasement that I don’t think professional diplomats or foreign policy practitioners would regard as anything but shameful.”
Nick Schifrin contributed reporting