Hoping to salvage the faltering Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to offer the release jailed spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for a renewed Israeli commitment to the peace process, reports the Washington Post. The plan, which would require a partial freeze on building Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as the release of Palestinians prisoners, has rattled Israel’s coalition government.
Kerry’s proposal, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet is currently reviewing, would include the release of 26 Palestinians who were convicted of terrorist acts before the 1993 Oslo Accords, as well as 14 Israeli-Arab prisoners and an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners who are not directly involved in killings of Israelis.
Pollard is an American citizen who has been serving a life sentence since 1987, convicted of spying on behalf of Israel while he was an intelligence analyst.
Israel, which granted him citizenship in 1996, has been trying to secure his release for years. During U.S.-brokered peace talks in 1998 with Palestinians at the Wye Plantation in Maryland, Netanyahu requested clemency for Pollard. Then-President Bill Clinton said he would review the matter, but ultimately decided not to release Pollard, saying the objections of U.S. intelligence officials were too strong. CIA Director George Tenet reportedly threatened to resign if Pollard was freed, reflecting the animosity in the U.S. intelligence community towards a man who, while he leaked state secrets to an allied nation, is still considered one of the most damaging spies in postwar U.S. history.
Pollard’s cause is popular in Israel, and dear to many Israeli politicians. But the plan to release him now, in exchange for Palestinians, has angered some members of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), even those in Netanyahu’s Likud party.
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“I also voted against releasing murderers during the Gilad Shalit deal," Uzi Landau, the tourism minister and a Likud member, said. Landau was referring to the Cabinet’s decision to free hundreds of Palestinian terrorists who had been jailed for murdering Israelis in exchange for Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by the radical Muslim movement Hamas. "We keep falling down a slippery slope. My hair stands on end when I hear we are planning to release Pollard in such a deal," Landau said.
Last July, Israel agreed to release 106 Palestinian prisoners in four batches, which was meant as a goodwill gesture in order to help restart peace talks. But Israel held off on releasing the fourth batch of prisoners, which was supposed to happen Saturday. Netanyahu said Israel would not make a deal to free prisoners “without a clear benefit for Israel in return.”
“This is a matter of values," Ze'ev Desberg, the head of Israel’s Legal Institute for Counterterrorism, told Arutz Sheva (Channel 7), an Israeli English-language news site. "It cannot be that terrorists should be freed in exchange for Pollard, who is not a criminal and not a terrorist." His position reflects a commonly held view among Israel’s right wing, where Pollard, although in the U.S. he is indeed a convicted criminal who narrowly escaped execution, is considered a hero.
Echoing Desberg’s sentiments, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon expressed anger at U.S. officials who he said were “playing a game with Pollard's fate … Pollard is not a terrorist, and to equate him with terrorists was an insult,” he said, threatening to resign if more terrorists were released.
If the deal goes through, Israel would also have to freeze most of its settlement construction, with the exception of East Jerusalem, which could also cause serious trouble in Netanyahu's already fragile coalition government. Right-wing parties in the coalition may block any deal.
Reports that Pollard might be freed provoked backlash in the U.S. as well. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said it would be a serious mistake. “I think it sends a horrible message,” he said on MSNBC. “You have connected two things that are completely unrelated. … This is not something we should tie together.”
Meanwhile, White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama has not yet made a decision.