Kerry’s Desperate Pollard Gamble Could Cost Him the Entire Israeli-Palestinian Ball Game

The plum political prize that Kerry was handing Netanyahu convinced Palestinians that they were getting the short end of the stick; now Kerry must salvage the talks that only a few still believe in

Israelis hold placards depicting Jonathan Pollard
Israelis hold placards depicting Jonathan Pollard during a protest calling for his release from a U.S. prison. Reuters

The late American psychiatrist Robert Custer, a pioneer in the treatment of compulsive gambling, identified three stages on the way to total addiction: first winning, then losing and finally desperation, when the gambler loses his sense of proportion and commits to ever-growing wagers. Judging by his willingness to put the release of imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating table, there is room for concern that John Kerry may also be on a path to losing it all.

Like a gambler sinking deeper and deeper, Kerry has whipped out one of the strongest aces in the American hand, so that all the time, energy and reputation that he has invested in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process won’t go down the drain. But the potential return on his bold bid was modest from the outset: release of Israeli prisoners, a “quiet” freeze on settlements and an extension of negotiations that only a few still believe in.

But not only has Kerry failed to secure his limited goals, the prospect of Pollard’s release may have actually contributed to the breakdown of his efforts on Tuesday. When the Palestinians compared the pittance they were receiving, in their view, to the plum Pollard prize that Kerry was bestowing on Prime Minister Netanyahu, they decided to walk away in a huff. If Bibi gets Pollard, they told Kerry, we will look like fools if we don’t demand something just as big, like jailed Palestinian activist Marwan Barghouti.

In America, reactions to the proposed release deteriorated throughout the day, from surprise in the morning to discomfort by noon to open opposition at sunset. “It’s a sign of weakness and desperation,” said former U.S. diplomat and peace envoy David Aaron Miller. We welcome Pollard’s release, said Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, but “it should not be intertwined with the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Senator John McCain described the administration’s linkage between the two as “disgusting” although he supports Pollard’s release; his Republican colleague Mark Kirk, a loyal friend of Israel, said Pollard should “rot in jail forever.”

Of course, opposition to Pollard’s release is not as harsh as it used to be. CIA director John Brennan is unlikely to threaten to resign, as his predecessor George Tenet did 16 years ago when President Clinton was trying to convince the same Netanyahu to sign the Wye River Memorandum. Pollard is going to be eligible for parole by November 2015 anyway, on the assumption that his health holds: “Maybe they just want to release him quickly so that he doesn’t die on them in jail,” one particularly cynical American told me on Monday.

It the kind of ambivalence that characterizes reactions across the political spectrum to the admittedly premature reports of Pollard’s imminent release. The hawkish right is torn between support for Israel, that wants to see Pollard freed, and the urge to depict the proposed parole as yet another indication of President Obama’s inherent global weakness, from the Black Sea to Benghazi. The moderate left would like to see the peace process continue, but is concerned about handing Netanyahu such a clear cut political victory. And American Jews would like nothing better than to see the end of the 30 year Pollard saga, but they are wary of renewed focus on insinuations of “dual loyalty” and of the negative impact of the “Pollard festival” that Israel will inevitably hold, if and when the jailed spy is indeed set free.

Of course, one can mount a credible geo-political defense of the sudden U.S. willingness to pay so much for so little. With Obama locking horns with Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, the last thing he needs is a flare up on the Israeli-Palestinian front that could entail international bickering as well as an internal spat between the Administration and Congress. Maybe that’s what Kerry told the President when he was imploring him to let him use Pollard as a bargaining chip, though people in his state are liable to say anything, as long as they can keep on playing the game.