The United States has proposed freeing Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in a trade-off deal in which Israel would agree to proceed with the next round of prisoner releases, including Israeli Arab prisoners, and the Palestinian Authority would agreed to extend the current peace talks, Israel’s Army Radio reported Wednesday.
It said the offer had been conveyed to Israel and the PA, but there was no official confirmation. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was quoted telling journalists accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry to a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday morning that there were currently no plans to release Pollard, who is serving a life sentence.
In exchange for Pollard, Israel would agree to release 26 prisoners, among them around 20 Arab Israelis, and the Palestinians would agree to continue talks until the end of 2014, according to Army Radio.
Kerry reportedly made the offer after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear his intentions to forgo the final stage of a prisoner release, previously agreed to as a bargaining chip for starting peace talks this past July, unless Abbas agreed to extend the talks past the upcoming April deadline.
Right-wing Israeli politicians have objected to the prisoner release, particularly letting inmates who are Israeli citizens go, but the inclusion of Pollard in the deal would likely help bring them aboard.
Pollard, a US naval analyst, was jailed by the US in 1987 after being caught spying for Israel. Successive Israeli governments have lobbied Washington for his release, with no success. He is due to be paroled late next year.
Israel’s Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) said he was “skeptical” over the reported deal.
“I don’t believe it will happen,” he said.
MK Miri Regev (Likud) said that while she wanted Pollard to go free, she did not believe Israel should release murderers.
Kerry cut short a trip to Europe to meet Abbas in Amman in a last-ditch effort to salvage the peace talks, which are due to end next month. He was also set to speak to Netanyahu.
Kerry’s trip aims “to continue to narrow the gaps between the parties,” Psaki said on Tuesday.
His unexpected visit — setting off from the Italian capital just hours after arriving — came as fresh tensions rose over the peace talks, which Kerry is struggling to keep on track beyond an April 29 deadline.
Negotiations also risked being waylaid by a row over the release of prisoners by Israel.
Israel pledged when talks began in July 2013 to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four batches, in exchange for the Palestinians refraining from pursuing legal action against the Jewish state in international courts.
Abbas agreed that for the nine-month duration of the talks he would shelve efforts to use the UN’s November 2012 recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state to press for membership in international bodies where it could fight Israel.
But after the release of a total of 78 inmates so far, Israeli cabinet ministers have warned that the remaining prisoners will not be freed on March 29 unless the Palestinians agree to extend the talks beyond their April 29 deadline.
Israel particularly objects to the Palestinians’ demand for Arab Israelis or Palestinian residents of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem convicted of terrorism to be included in the release.
In response, Palestinian leaders on Tuesday threatened to renew their diplomatic push at the United Nations if Israel fails to free Arab prisoners as scheduled this weekend.
“We shall turn to the UN’s international organizations if Israel does not release the fourth and final group of prisoners,” said Yasser Abed Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee.
“The release of the prisoners is in return for the freeze on seeking membership in international organisations,” he told official Voice of Palestine radio.
“If Israel were to refuse to free the fourth batch it would have serious consequences, including initiatives at the United Nations,” former Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayeh, said in a statement.
Abbas told the Arab League Summit in Kuwait on Tuesday that he has so far refused to even discuss recognizing the Jewish state — a key demand of Netanyahu — and that by raising the issue Israel was trying to disrupt the peace talks.
“Israel has not missed an opportunity to derail US peace efforts, including raising new demands, such as the demand for recognition as a ‘Jewish state,’ which we have refused to so much as discuss,” Abbas could be seen saying in video footage from the conference.
In a draft statement endorsed by foreign ministers, the summit stressed a “categorical rejection” of the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and rejected “all pressures exerted on the Palestinian leadership” to force it into agreeing to that demand.
A senior Palestinian official told AFP on condition of anonymity that in recent talks with US special envoy Martin Indyk, Abbas warned that if the April 29 talks deadline was not met “Israel would be in violation of agreements and (the Palestinian leadership) would have the right to turn to the UN and to take any measures it deems necessary.”