Imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard may be released from American incarceration as part of a deal being negotiation by the US, Israel and the Palestinians to keep peace talks on track, unnamed sources involved in the negotiations said Monday.
Sources close to the talks told Reuters and the Associated Press that the US and Israel were discussing Pollard’s early release.
The report came as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in a bid to salvage the faltering eight-month-old peace talks
According to Reuters, Pollard could be released by mid-April in return for Israel releasing a final wave of 27 prisoners from its jails. Further, Israel would release an additional batch of detainees and peace talks would be extended past the April 29 deadline agreed to in July, Reuters’ sources said.
A source speaking to the AP cautioned that such a step by the United States — which would be a dramatic turnaround from previous refusals — was far from a done deal and that discussions with Israel on the matter are ongoing. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations on the record.
A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment to The Times of Israel, but did not deny the reports.
An Israeli official confirmed that Pollard’s release could be part of deal to extend talks, but that chances were low, Israel Radio reported.
White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to the reports of Pollard’s possible release saying, “He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence, and I don’t have any update on his situation.”
Pollard, a US naval analyst, was imprisoned 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.
Last week, Israel’s Army Radio revealed that the United States had proposed freeing 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.
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.
Peace talks have stagnated and threatened to fall apart in recent days after Israel refused to release the final batch of prisoners, said to contain a number of Israeli citizens, saying the Palestinians were not negotiating in good faith.
Kerry rushed to the Middle East on Monday for a surprise visit aimed at rescuing his Mideast diplomatic efforts, as peace talks approached a critical make-or-break point.
Kerry went straight to Jerusalem and began talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accompanied by his envoy Martin Indyk and US ambassador Dan Shapiro, an AFP correspondent said.
Israel’s chief negotiator Tzipi Livni was also present.
He will travel to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinians on Monday gave Kerry 24 hours to resolve a dispute with Israel over prisoners after which they will resume moves to seek international recognition.
“If we don’t get an answer from John Kerry on the prisoners tonight, we’ll begin to ask for membership in all UN agencies tomorrow,” Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghuti told AFP following a top-level leadership meeting in Ramallah which took place as Kerry arrived in Israel.
Furious Palestinian officials have warned that unless Israel changes its stance on the prisoner releases, it could signal the end of the talks.
Another Palestinian official who attended the meeting in Ramallah told AFP “the Israeli government violated the agreements and must bear the consequences of its decisions”.
The two Palestinian officials also said that the leadership had confirmed there was “no link between the release of Palestinian prisoners and the extension of negotiations”
Kerry has been working frantically in recent days trying to salvage the embattled peace process. A senior US official said Kerry spoke with Israeli and Palestinian leaders all morning from Paris, as well as with the White House, before deciding to go back to the region.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
American mediators have been holding urgent talks to resolve a standoff over a promised Israeli prisoner release, and to find a formula to extend the talks beyond a current late-April deadline. If the prisoner release, which was scheduled to happen by the end of March, does not take place, the negotiations risk collapse in the coming weeks.
The Palestinian leadership set a meeting to discuss developments Monday evening in the West Bank city of Ramallah. There was no immediate comment from the office of Israel’s prime minister.
Under heavy pressure from Kerry, Israel and the Palestinians agreed last July to hold nine months of peace talks, setting a late-April deadline for a final agreement. When that became unrealistic, Kerry scaled back his goals and said he would aim for a preliminary “framework” agreement by April, with the goal of continuing negotiations through the end of the year to iron out the final details of a deal.
But even that more modest goal has run into trouble due to a snag over the prisoner release. When the talks began last summer, Israel promised to free 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners in four stages. After carrying out the first three releases, Israel has balked at releasing the final group without a Palestinian commitment to extend talks.
Israeli officials say they are under no obligation to carry out the final release because of what they say is a Palestinian failure to negotiate in good faith.
The prisoner issue is deeply emotional on both sides. The Palestinians consider the roughly 5,000 Palestinians held by Israel to be heroes and freedom fighters. Israel considers them terrorists. The prisoners have all served lengthy terms after being convicted in bloody attacks on Israelis, and the scenes of freed prisoners returning to jubilant celebrations have angered the Israeli public.
Israel says it is under no obligation to free the last group of prisoners, claiming the Palestinians have not negotiated in “good faith.” The Palestinians say Israel is obligated to carry out the release. They are demanding additional gestures, including the release of another 1,000 prisoners and a halt to Israeli settlement construction on war-won lands, in return for extending peace talks.
Kerry had met in Paris with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on how to calm tensions and de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine.