US Secretary of State John Kerry offered to arrange the release of jailed spy-for-Israel Jonathan Pollard if Israel frees Israeli Arab prisoners in the fourth and final phase of a series of prisoner releases, Israel’s Channel 10 News reported Friday night, citing unnamed Israeli sources.
The White House and State Department declined to comment on the report.
The 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 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the context of upcoming prisoner releases by Israel.
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.
According to the Channel 10 report, by the station’s veteran defense affairs correspondent Alon Ben-David, Kerry recently raised the idea of freeing Pollard as compensation for Israel releasing 26 longtime Israeli Arab prisoners in the fourth and final phase of an agreed series of prisoner releases related to the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Fifty-two Palestinian prisoners, most of them convicted of murderous acts of terrorism, have gone free in the first two phases, and another 26 are set to be released this coming Monday.
Israel has refused to free any Israeli Arab citizens thus far.
The TV report cautioned that president Bill Clinton agreed in principle to a request by Netanyahu to free Pollard in 1998, but was overruled by the US intelligence community. It noted that the White House had reiterated only this week that Obama had no intention of releasing Pollard in the foreseeable future.
Other Channel 10 analysts speculated that Netanyahu would certainly agree to free Israeli Arabs in return for Pollard’s freedom, and went so far as to suggest that securing Pollard’s release would ensure Netanyahu’s reelection. They added, though, that Pollard was so large a bargaining chip that the US might want to tie his possible release not solely to the relatively minor matter of freeing Israeli Arab prisoners, but also to Kerry’s proposed “framework” deal for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Israel Radio’s far less dramatic report, also quoting unnamed Israeli sources, said merely that Kerry had agreed to look into the possibility of freeing Pollard, and that Israel considered the prospects of Pollard going free to be “very low.”
After a lengthy debate at the Knesset 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.
Their letter is slated to be sent directly to Obama in the coming days, while Knesset Speaker Edelstein will also pass on a copy to the US Senate and a delegation of Knesset members will present the request to the US ambassador in Israel, Dan Shapiro.
“The Israeli Knesset is turning to the US President Barack Obama to request, on humanitarian and humanistic grounds, in light of his grave medical condition, to limit the sentence of Jonathan Pollard and order his immediate release,” read the decision from Wednesday’s debate.
“This humanitarian gesture is essential, and even necessary for Israel-US relations at this time,” the statement continued, alluding to recent tension between the two countries over the revelation, by NSA spy Edward Snowden, that the US was monitoring the emails of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and spied on former defense minister Ehud Barak.
Forty Knesset members, from a range of political parties, presented their positions at the plenum.
Edelstein, a former political prisoner in the USSR, was the first to address the Knesset. “I hope that perhaps, in the environment emerging at this time, this discussion will advance the efforts to free him after 28 years — an unbearable period — and I say this as one who tasted the deprivation of liberty and freedom,” he said.
Labor MK Yehiel Bar compared Israel’s prisoner releases, aimed to advance peace with the Palestinians, to the request to release Pollard. “We hope that the US government will identify [with Israel] and release Pollard, although it may be difficult to many people in the US,” Bar said. “Although it’s difficult, do what we do here: Release prisoners just in order to talk to the other side.”
While many members of the Arab factions opposed the request, others supported it wholeheartedly. “On behalf of myself and on behalf of my party, we turn to the US to immediately release Pollard,” said MK Ibrahim Sarsur of the United Arab List. He also added that he “felt an emotional kinship with Pollard when I heard about the conditions under which he lives,” since they reminded him of the conditions of Palestinians prisoners in Israel.
Members of Likud-Beitenu, Yesh Atid, the Jewish Home, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Meretz supported the move.
On 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.
The White House on Monday said it had no intention of letting the convicted spy go free.
An unnamed source in the White House office told Channel 10 that the president “stands behind the things he said before he visited Israel [in March]. Pollard committed a very serious crime, and [Obama] has no intention of releasing him.”
However, Netanyahu was said to be pushing again for Pollard’s release as part of the wider terms for Israel signing a framework agreement with the Palestinians that Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly poised to present to the two sides.
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.