US Secretary of State John Kerry “deceived” Israel during the discussions over the release of longtime Palestinian terrorist convicts, a senior Israeli official charged Monday, according to a TV report.
The dramatic Channel 2 report — broadcast just a few hours before Israel’s release of a third group of 26 Palestinian prisoners, and shortly before Kerry is due back in the region with hopes to get Israel and the Palestinians to sign a “framework” peace deal — suggested a profound breakdown of trust between the secretary and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister’s Office late Monday issued a statement saying it was not accusing Kerry of deception.
The TV report said that Netanyahu had sent a message to Kerry in the last few days making crystal clear that Israel will not free any Israeli Arab prisoners in the fourth and final phase of the prisoner releases, set for the coming months, and it suggested that Kerry had duplicitously allowed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to believe that Israeli Arab prisoners would be freed.
According to the report, quoting an unnamed senior Israeli government source, Netanyahu had agreed with Kerry, when they were finalizing terms for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the summer, that Israel would free 82 Palestinian prisoners in a series of phased releases, and that Israel would not include any Israeli Arab convicts among those to be freed. And yet when Abbas demanded, in his own separate meetings with Kerry, that 104 prisoners be released, and that Israeli Arab terrorist convicts be among those set free, “Kerry did not correct him,” the report said, presumably because he did not want to scupper the talks.
Instead, having chosen not to resolve the discrepancy with Abbas, the secretary of state came back to Netanyahu, and apparently attempted to persuade the prime minister to change his position. According to the TV report, that was when the issue of a possible release of spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard entered the equation. Netanyahu reiterated to Kerry that he was not prepared to release Israeli Arab prisoners as any kind of a goodwill gesture to Abbas, but said he might consider doing so as a gesture to the United States, were Washington to free Pollard. The secretary then promised to look into the possibility.
In the last few days, the report continued, Netanyahu had made clear to Kerry that Israel’s refusal to release Israeli Arab terror convicts is unchanged. The prime minister has also instructed the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Prison Service to draw up a list of 26 names for the fourth and final scheduled batch of prisoner releases, set to take place in the coming months, that does not include any Israeli Arabs.
The report sensationally quoted the senior Israeli official charging that Kerry had “deceived” Israel over the episode, but did not specify precisely what the official meant by the charge. Apparently the accusation related to Kerry failing to tell Abbas that Israel would not free Israeli Arabs, and failing to reconcile the discrepancy over the overall numbers of prisoners to be released, and then trying to persuade Israel to change its position on the issue, including by referencing Pollard.
Israel has historically been disinclined to give the Palestinian leadership any say in the fate of Israeli Arab citizens, regarding such citizens as being solely an Israeli responsibility. Among the 26 prisoners going free on Monday night were several East Jerusalem residents, who would theoretically be eligible for Israeli citizenship and who hold Israeli residency papers, but none of them is a full Israeli citizen.
The complicated TV report, by Channel 2’s well-connected diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal, came in the wake of a series of contradictory reports at the weekend concerning purported American readiness to consider freeing Pollard — reports that were denied by the White House and played down by the US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro.
“I suggest we don’t believe every media report,” Shapiro said Sunday morning. “There’s no direct link between Pollard and the [peace] negotiations or the prisoner release. These are different issues.”
Israel’s Channel 10 News reported Friday night, citing unnamed Israeli sources, that Kerry had offered to arrange the release of Pollard if Israel freed Israeli Arab prisoners in the fourth and final phase of the prisoner releases. That TV report added, however, that Kerry clarified in his contacts with Israel’s leaders on the issue that Pollard’s release had not been approved by President Barack Obama, and the report further said Israel doubted that Kerry could actually secure Obama’s approval.
In contrast to the TV report, Israel Radio reported Friday night that Kerry had merely promised to check into the possibility of freeing Pollard, as requested by Netanyahu.
Pollard has served 28 years for spying for Israel. Israeli politicians of all stripes, led by Netanyahu, have recently called on the US to let the 59-year-old former US naval intelligence analyst go free. The issue has hit the headlines again particularly in light of recent revelations that the US spied on Israeli prime ministers and other senior officials in 2008 and 2009.
After a lengthy debate at the Knesset last Wednesday, an overwhelming 106 of the 120 Knesset members signed off on an official request to Obama to free Pollard, who is a dual US-Israeli citizen.
Last Monday, Netanyahu met with Esther Pollard, wife of the Israeli-American spy, and “updated her on the non-stop efforts to release Jonathan,” according to a statement by his office.
Pollard was convicted in 1987 on charges of passing classified information to Israel while he worked as an intelligence analyst for the US Navy. He was given a life sentence for the crime, sparking decades of activism for his release by Jewish groups, and, more recently, some high-profile US and Israeli officials.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.