WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Barack Obama faces a classic costs versus benefits conundrum as he considers whether to free Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to save failing Middle East talks.
On the one hand, the US-born Pollard, 59, is a trump card fast losing its value given that after 28 years behind bars, he may be freed on parole anyway next year.
However, the former naval intelligence analyst who turned over suitcases stuffed with US Cold War-era secrets to the Israelis in the mid-1980s, is a cause celebre.
The intelligence and defense community for years dug in its heels over Pollard, on the grounds that he was a US native son who took foreign cash to betray his country. And there is no guarantee that his release now would buy anything more than a stay of execution for a peace process that appears to be going nowhere.
Pollard’s name suddenly surfaced again in latest last-minute diplomacy to save the US-brokered peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians. US and Israeli sources indicated that his possible release from a North Carolina jail, and repatriation to Israel where he is an honorary citizen, was on the table as both sides bartered over a deal.
The idea appeared to be to use the coup of Pollard’s freedom to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu political cover to honor a scheduled release of Palestinian prisoners.
Fading peace hopes
Israel has balked at so doing without a guarantee that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will keep talking. The Palestinians will not give that assurance until the prisoners are freed.
Late Tuesday, however, peace hopes appeared to be dying faster than US Secretary of State John Kerry could resuscitate them as both sides took steps that could scupper talks.
Pragmatists argue Pollard is worth more to the Israelis now than to the United States, so is a worthy bargaining chip.
“He is at the end of his incarceration, he is not of an intelligence value to us any more,” said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm.
“Why not try to trade him to get something of value in return?”
David Pollock, a former State Department expert in the Middle East, says Pollard had paid a heavy price by spending half his life in jail.
“My own view is that it is a card to play and it is okay to play it for the right price,” said Pollock.
“It is worth it because it is important for the US national interest to keep the peace process moving — even if it is not going anywhere,” said Pollock, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Successive Israeli leaders have asked successive US presidents for Pollard — and Netanyahu has tried to leverage his freedom in peace talks over 16 years.
Fears of bad deal
Skeptics, however, worry Washington may be about to strike a bad deal.
Sources said Kerry is dangling a possible release of Pollard by Passover this month as a carrot, to get Netanyahu to release 400 extra Palestinian prisoners and a commitment to extend peace talks into next year.
US officials may also seek restraint on Israeli settlement activity for the duration of the talks — to entice Palestinians back to the table.
It has always been tacitly acknowledged that Pollard would feature in a US package of incentives for Israel to agree to a final status deal with Palestinians, but skeptics argue the current reported outline of a deal sells this potential trump card short.
“It clearly shows the administration is desperate to keep the process going at any cost,” said Khaled Elgindy, a Brookings Institution fellow who has advised the Palestinians on final status talks.
“All they are getting is a continuation of the process.”
Obama must also guard against further diminishing his own brand as a statesman. A decision to free Pollard followed by intransigence by Netanyahu, or a seemingly inevitable crash of peace talks, would leave him politically exposed.
Several key figures in Congress are already restive.
“I think this is a serious mistake,” Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told MSNBC.
Rogers warned Pollard should pay the full price for his crime and that equating him with Palestinian prisoners — some of whom were violent — was inappropriate.
One factor weighing in favor of a Pollard release is that resistance in the covert community may have dimmed with time.
Ex-CIA chief George Tenet once threatened to quit if Pollard was freed — but the generation of US spies defined by the Cold War has now mostly retired.
Current US agents tasked with liaising with Israeli agencies may also see value in a swap — given they could expect a covert payoff that will never be made public.
“If you have the Mossad account, or the Shin Bet account (at the CIA) you are looking at this and saying ‘what else can I get if I am going to hand over Pollard,” said Burton, a former counter terrorism agent with the State Department.