Should Jonathan Pollard be freed as part of a deal to resuscitate the latest flailing effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian agreement? That’s the question roiling political and pro-Israel circles this week amid reports that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to hammer out a deal with Israel and the Palestinians to extend the talks beyond the deadline he had set to reach a framework agreement by the end of this month.
The answer: Pollard, the former naval intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel and has been serving a life sentence since 1987, should be released on humanitarian grounds but he should not be part of any such a deal. Support for Pollard’s release transcends the political spectrum, with increasing numbers of American, Jewish and Israeli officials sounding a unified appeal for his freedom because he is ailing physically and was subject to excessive punishment that violated a plea bargain agreement.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been fighting for Pollard’s release since his first term as prime minister back in 1998, when he almost clinched a deal with then-President Bill Clinton amid another effort at peacemaking.
That Pollard could be part of a potential arrangement appears the height of irony. Why? Because according to his most ardent supporters, he doesn’t want to be involved in any exchange that would smack of concessions on Israel’s part. Likewise, his release might hand Netanyahu a temporary political boost but would likely not last if and when the premier needs to take even harder decisions regarding next steps with the Palestinians.
That the issue is even being raised suggests desperation on the part of the Obama administration. Kerry’s determination is admirable but most likely doomed. In stressing that no progress can be made unless both sides have the desire — and courageous leadership — to make it happen, he is sounding an all-too-familiar refrain. Kerry is finally learning the lesson that past U.S. adminstrations discovered — no matter how much the United States might want it, only the parties themselves can make peace happen.
Israel was right to skip a deadline this week for the release of yet another, larger group of Palestinian prisoners. Israel has already released 78 prisoners connected to fatal terrorist attacks as it had agreed to, but Israeli Cabinet ministers said they want Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to commit to another nine months of talks before releasing the final batch.
If Israel is going to make another painful prisoner release, it has to have something to show for it. So far, it’s got nothing from the Palestinians despite months of talks. Injecting Pollard into the mix isn’t going to change that sad reality.