JERUSALEM — Israel is weighing a deal proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry to rescue stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, which includes as a bargaining chip the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Freeing Pollard, the American naval intelligence analyst found guilty in 1987 of passing secrets to Israel, was raised by Kerry in meetings in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Ynet news website reported, citing an unidentified Israeli official. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki didn’t dispute the report.
Kerry is trying to craft a formula for extending nine months of peace talks that are due to expire at the end of April. With the negotiations stumbling most recently over an overdue Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners, that deadline is looming.
The previous goal of reaching agreement on a “framework” as a first step on the path to a peace deal is fading as the focus shifts to extending the talks and moving toward resolving “final status” issues by late this year, according to one U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to comment by name.
When peace talks resumed in July, Israel agreed to free 104 Palestinian security prisoners in four installments. It missed last week’s deadline for the final round of releases. Under the deal being discussed, Ynet said, Pollard would be freed this month. Israel in return would release the fourth group of prisoners, free an additional 400, and limit new construction in its West Bank settlements in order to entice the Palestinians to keep negotiating into 2015.
Kerry changed his travel plans Monday to squeeze in a last-minute visit to Israel and the West Bank. He met early Tuesday with Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority, before talks with Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Kerry made no comment on his discussions before leaving for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels.
Palestinian Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqi said the Palestinian leadership would discuss the latest U.S. proposal Tuesday. If Kerry’s bid fails, the Palestinians will immediately resume their diplomatic efforts to achieve statehood recognition at the United Nations, Qaraqi said in a phone interview.
Extending the talks would require Israel freeing another 1,000 prisoners and completely freezing new settlement building, he said.
Pollard’s imprisonment has long been a source of tension in U.S.-Israeli relations, with Netanyahu trying to secure the spy’s release since his first term as prime minister.
Pollard, 59, who was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for parole, is scheduled to be released from a medium- security prison in Butner, N.C., on Nov. 21, 2015, pending a final review by the U.S. Parole Commission, said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
While freeing Pollard about 18 months early could spur Israel to make concessions that would keep the peace talks alive, it also may cause an uproar among current and former U.S. intelligence officials who consider him a traitor.
“We would express our real outrage that an unrepentant spy is being released for an abstract political point that really won’t make a difference,” said Oliver “Buck” Revell, who served as associate deputy director of the FBI when Pollard was convicted.
Some of Netanyahu’s ministers have opposed linking Pollard’s release with the freeing of Palestinian prisoners or settlement construction. Agricultural Minister Yair Shamir said Tuesday on Army Radio he would vote against any agreement connecting the issues, and condemned any U.S. offer of freeing Pollard under those terms as “bribery.”
“While some ministers like Shamir, and parties such as the Jewish Home faction, will probably vote against such a proposal, Netanyahu’s government would still probably survive in its present form if a deal is approved,” said Abraham Diskin, a political science professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Much depends though on the final details, and how it is presented.”
In 1998, more than a decade after Pollard’s conviction, Israel acknowledged Pollard’s espionage activities in an attempt to facilitate his release. He was granted Israeli citizenship during his imprisonment.
Pollard was arrested in 1985, after delivering to Israel about 800 documents, some of which were classified top secret, according to the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group at George Washington University in Washington. He also stole an estimated 1,500 U.S. intelligence summary messages.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s 1987 damage assessment of Pollard’s activities showed he provided Israel with information on topics including Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare production capabilities, Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states, Pakistan’s nuclear program and the capabilities of Tunisian and Libyan air defense systems.