Let’s start at the end. There has been no change for the better in the U.S. administration’s position on freeing the Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard’s release is no closer today than it was a week ago, a month ago, a year ago or two years ago. He will be eligible for parole in 2015. On the eve of his visit to Israel in March of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama said he would, “make sure that he – like every other American who has been sentenced – is accorded the same kinds of review and same examination of the equities that any other individual would provide,”
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So what has changed in the past few weeks? U.S. pressure to make progress in the talks with the Palestinians, the approach of the third round of the release of Palestinian prisoners and fears of a political and public “world war” surrounding the fourth round — which will include Israeli Arabs — led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to raise the Pollard issue again in conversations with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Netanyahu raised the issue in July, as the memorandum of understanding on the renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian was nearly complete. He asked Kerry to free Pollard as a U.S. good will gesture in return for Israel agreeing to free more than 100 Palestinian prisoners who were jailed even before the 1993 Oslo Accords. Kerry noted the request and never got back to Netanyahu.
Two weeks ago, even before the publication of reports on the spying by the United States on Israeli targets, Netanyahu asked Kerry in one of their meetings whether the United States could release Pollard, or at least set a release date so as to sweeten — at least for the Israeli right wing— the “bitter pill” of releasing Israeli Arab prisoners who are scheduled for release in March.
Kerry did not say yes, but he did say this time that he would discuss the matter with Obama. The response caused Netanyahu and his advisors to feel optimistic. The exposure of the American spying on senior Israeli officials, after Netanyahu has already raised the issue with Kerry, created a renewed media buzz over the Pollard issue.
It is possible the optimism is well placed, but it is more reasonable that Kerry simply was being polite. After all, the U.S. secretary of state has been ready and willing to examine even much stranger ideas throughout his career. But talks with senior American officials leave the impression that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to see Obama grant Netanyahu a prize in the form of Pollard’s release only to rescue him from the complication that ensued when he chose releasing Palestinian prisoners over freezing construction in the settlements.
Kerry has still not said no to Netanyahu. He’d rather hold out hope than reject the idea out of hand. To preserve Pollard as a bargaining chip who can be pulled out to convince Netanyahu to make more serious concessions, such as agreeing to a framework agreement for a Palestinian state on 1967 borders and with its capital in East Jerusalem.
If Kerry feels Netanyahu needs Pollard to make such a historic decision, he won’t hesitate to try to persuade Obama to release Pollard.
The failures of successive Israeli governments led Pollard and his cause to become identified with the most extreme elements of the Israeli right wing, which cannot entertain even the idea of a Palestinian state. If the above scenario comes to pass, it is not at all obvious that Pollard and his supporters would be happy to drink from the poisoned chalice.