The Obama administration, struggling for ways to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going, is considering doing something it swore it would never do: release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
An administration official confirmed to The Daily Beast that the possible release of Pollard, although not likely, is now on the list of items being discussed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu as part of a formula whereby he and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would both agree to extend peace talks past their April 29 deadline. The release would sweeten the pot for Netanyahu, who is being asked to release even more Palestinian prisoners as part of the deal to extend negotiations.
Inside the Obama administration, Kerry first raised the idea of adding the Pollard release to the mix of possible incentives months ago, but initially faced resistance from the White House. But as the clock winds down on the nine month-long talks and both sides toughen their bargaining stances, the administration is no longer outright rejecting the idea when proposed from the Israeli side.
“This is one of many things that is being discussed as a means of extending the talks,” the official said. “At the past three junctures (with the Israelis), we’ve said no, these are two separate things. Now it looks as if the Israeli strategy of trying to get us to conflate the issues has gained traction. There is White House buy in on this.”
White House Spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment Monday after a senior Israeli official said that Pollard’s release was in play, just following Kerry’s three hour meeting with Netanyahu.
"He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence, and I don't have any update on his situation," Carney said.
Inside the administration, a debate is raging over how far the U.S. should go to achieve a simple extension of the negotiations that doesn't address any of the actual issues that would be part of a potential final deal between the two parties. The White House is more skeptical a final deal can be struck while the State Department, led by Kerry, holds our more hope that more time will help achieve real progress.
Some officials lament that Kerry’s meetings with Netanyahu and Abbas, which are private and cryptic, are focused only on extending negotiations and not on actual final status issues. The confidence building measures being proposed to both sides are from the same menu the administration used last July, raising concern that Kerry is back where he started nine months ago.
Supporters of the process argue that that some progress has been made on core issues, gaps are narrower than nine months ago, and therefore the two sides are slightly closer to an agreement. Experts said that the fact the administration is seriously considering the Pollard release shows how desperate the U.S. is to keep the process going.
“If you can’t get the deal without releasing Pollard, that’s truly a catastrophe,” said former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, now with the Wilson Center.
The Israeli and Palestinian leadership simply doesn’t have enough invested in the process to continue it without incentives and the administration is scrambling to come up with new offers, such as this, he said. But the difficulty over agreeing to an extension of the talks bodes poorly for the next round, if it even materializes.
“If the Secretary of State has to spend all this time on the appetizers, what happens when you have to confront the main course?” said Miller. “You may get some kind of muddle through that will get us past the April 29 deadline. The question is what the price will be and what will be the costs to American credibility.”
Netanyahu has yet to approve the release of the fourth tranche of Palestinian prisoners that were part of the deal to initiate the talks last summer. The Israeli government believes that its concessions have been disproportionally large when compared to the main Palestinian concession, which is not to pursue greater international recognition at the United Nations.
A spokesman for the Israeli embassy declined to comment for the piece. But former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told reporters that “there are no indications that I am seeing that significant process has been made.”
“Israel has to keep on paying the Palestinians to stay at the negotiating table,” he added.
If Netanyahu were to secure Pollard's release, it would mark the end of a near two-decade campaign for the Israeli prime minister. In 1998, in his first brief term as prime minister, Netanyahu pressed President Clinton to release the convicted spy as a condition to Israel's acceptance of an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians known as the Wye River Accords.
The idea was so opposed by the U.S. intelligence community at the time that George Tenet, who was then the CIA director, threatened to resign if Pollard was released. Opposition to Pollard's release has softened since then. James Woolsey, another former CIA director, has called for Pollard's release as have other former top U.S. officials.
But Netanyahu has made it a special priority. In his first term as prime minister, he granted Pollard--who was an American citizen--Israeli citizenship. When the prime minister was out of power, he visited Pollard in prison. Netanyahu has publicly asked Obama to release him and his government has raised the issue in past discussions with the United States.
Pollard recently underwent hospital treatment and his supporters say he is in poor health and suffers from Kidney ailments. Exactly how long he can survive – in or out of custody – is unclear.
-- with additional reporting by Eli Lake