The World

The Pollard Maneuver

Israeli protesters hold up pictures of Jonathan Pollard outside the residence of Israeli President Shimon Peres on March 19, 2013, in Jerusalem a day ahead of President Obama’s visit. 

Photo by Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

It’s Jonathan Pollard season again in the Middle East. The question of whether the former civilian naval intelligence analyst who has been in jail since 1987, when he was convicted of passing classified information to Israel, should be released, is a perennial source of tension in U.S.-Israel relations. But for the first time in quite a while, there now seems to be a serious possibility that Pollard will actually be set free.

The New York Times reports that a deal involving Pollard’s release aimed at keeping the current round of peace talks from collapsing was hammered out by John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is currently “awaiting approval from the White House regarding Mr. Pollard as well as from President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority .”

Haaretz provides the details of the deal on the table, according to a senior Israeli official:

1)   The Palestinians will agree to extend the negotiations by a year – into 2015 – and avoid unilateral moves at the UN; 2) The U.S. will release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard before the Passover holiday; 3) Israel will release the fourth group of Palestinian prisoners which will include 14 Israeli Arab prisoners; 4) Israel will release another 400 Palestinian prisoners “without blood on their hands” who are about to finish their sentences; Israel will choose which prisoners will be released and they will include women and minors; 5) Israel will freeze most of the construction in the settlements, with the exception of East Jerusalem and would halt government tenders, marketing of lands and planning.

It’s a move that certainly smacks of desperation, coming just days after Israel balked at releasing a fourth and final batch of Palestinian prisoners. The negotiations, one of Kerry’s signature initiatives as secretary of state, appear to be on the brink of collapse.

This deal could keep the talks going for another year, but at a pretty steep price. While Israel once refused to acknowledge Pollard, he has in recent years become something of a cause célèbre, viewed by some as an Israeli patriot rather than the way he’s been generally been portrayed by the U.S. government, as a mentally unstable man who turned traitor for personal gain. 

If Obama does decide to release Pollard, it could further strain an already tense relationship between the White House and U.S. intelligence services. The last time a U.S. president seriously considered Pollard’s release—Bill Clinton in 1998—then-CIA Director George Tenet threatened to quit in protest.

The information Pollard gave to Israel included technical details of U.S. spy satellites and highly classified information about how the U.S. intercepted Soviet communications. Retired Adm. Thomas Brooks, the former director of naval intelligence, told Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris this week that in his view, “what [Pollard] did is exceeded only by Edward Snowden.” Brooks believes that the information Pollard passed along was likely intercepted by the KGB, which had a number of informants inside the Mossad at the time.

As Jeffrey Goldberg notes, a deal for Pollard’s release that includes the release of Palestinian prisoners or leads to Israeli concessions on land probably won’t make hardliners in either Israel or the U.S happy for very long. Initial reactions to the idea of releasing Pollard in exchange for a “peace deal that puts Israel at risk” seem to bear this out.

It may not even make Pollard very happy. He has said in the past that he would refuse to be released in exchange “for terrorists.”

All the same, Pollard’s release could be a major political victory for Netanyahu, who has made it a personal priority. (The emotional tone was cranked up to 11 this week when former captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit wrote an impassioned letter calling for Pollard’s release.) The prime minister wants this one badly, which ideally would give the U.S. some leverage.

Pollard has spent quite a long time in jail now, and his release as part of a deal that involved major final status concessions would seem reasonable. But by agreeing to it now, the U.S. would be cashing in a major bargaining chip just to continue having talks that don’t seem to be going anywhere anyway. (And as Ali Gharib points out at the Daily Beast, Pollard is up for parole in two years anyway, which would seem like a much more logical time to consider this.)

Michael Koplow writes, “if the negotiations are going so poorly that Israel will only agree to keep them going if Pollard is let out, then the two sides stand very little chance of coming to an agreement.”

Some of Kerry’s Hail Marys have worked out in the past, but unfortunately I’m inclined to agree.