Pollard-for-prisoners deal awaits Palestinian response

As agreement to free American-Israeli spy nears completion, anger in Ramallah and Jerusalem over terms

Israeli protestors hold signs during a demonstration outside US Secretary of State John Kerry's hotel in Jerusalem, against the planned release by Israel of Palestinian prisoners, Monday, March 31, 2014 (photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Israeli protestors hold signs during a demonstration outside US Secretary of State John Kerry's hotel in Jerusalem, against the planned release by Israel of Palestinian prisoners, Monday, March 31, 2014 (photo credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The Palestinian leadership was set to convene Tuesday evening to discuss a tripartite deal between the US, Israel and the PA, which would see Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard freed from a US prison in exchange for a partial settlement construction freeze and the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.

The deal, which officials said was nearing completion on Tuesday afternoon, met with criticism in both the Israeli and Palestinian camps.

The Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported anger in Ramallah over the fact that while convicted spy Pollard would be released, high-profile Palestinian prisoners such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sa’adat would remain behind bars. Still, Palestinian sources confirmed to the Palestinian daily al-Quds that the deal was nearing completion and would include the release of a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners, among them 14 Arab Israelis.

Ma’an reported that Abbas would convene the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah at 7 p.m. on Tuesday to discuss the proposal.

In Israel, right-wing MKs protested the prisoner release stipulated by the pact. Under its terms, Israel will soon release the last 27 prisoners from the 104 agreed to when peace talks began in July. In addition, another 400 low-level prisoners, not convicted of violent crimes, would be set free. The group would include women, children and inmates with only a few months of incarceration left.

Tourism Minister Uzi Landau (Yisrael Beytenu) said the proposed deal was a “cyanide pill” that would allow the release of murderers.

“I get goosebumps when I think of Pollard being released under such a deal,” Landau told Channel 10. “The reason they will give us Pollard is so that we can sugarcoat what is actually a cyanide pill.”

He added that releasing “murderers of such a scale” was a wrong move and bound to cause damage.

“Congressmen and the heads of the CIA support his release for humanitarian reasons,” Landau said. “His release must not be conditioned in any way on the release of despicable killers.”

Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir, also of the Yisrael Beytenu party, also said he would oppose the proposal.

“The Palestinians continue to make a series of arrogant and dangerous demands, such as releasing yet more murderers, or freezing construction in the West Bank. Jonathan Pollard has nothing to do with these matters,” he said.

Shamir asserted, like Landau, that the convicted spy should be released on humanitarian grounds. “We must not tie [his release] to Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority, and certainly not make any concessions to secure it,” he said.

Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud), meanwhile, said the price Israel was asked to pay in exchange for Pollard’s release was too high.

“We all want to see Pollard come home, but not at the cost of a wholesale release of terrorists, for which we will shed lots of blood in the future,” Danon said. He told Israel Radio Tuesday he would quit the government if Israel went ahead with the deal, even with Pollard thrown in.

The deal mandates that talks between Israel and the Palestinians be extended into 2015 and Pollard released in the next two weeks, a source close to the talks said. Israel would also commit to put an unofficial moratorium on settlement building for the next eight months under the agreement, though the halt would not extend to East Jerusalem.

“Israel did not accept the Palestinian demand for total and complete settlement freeze but agreed to adopt a policy of restraint concerning government tenders” in the West Bank, the source told The Times of Israel.

The identity of the prisoners to be released would be decided partly by Israel and partly by the Palestinian Authority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with senior Likud party members on Tuesday to elaborate on the details of the plan and enlist their support. According to Maariv, the right-wing Jewish Home party would not torpedo the agreement despite its opposition to additional prisoner releases.

Earlier in the day US Secretary of State John Kerry held a second round of talks with Netanyahu amid a push to salvage faltering peace efforts. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said he would return to the region on Wednesday and meet with Abbas at noon.

He was initially scheduled to meet with Abbas on Monday but the meeting was canceled after Kerry’s discussion with Netanyahu dragged on too late. Kerry met instead with the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj.

The two presented Kerry with Ramallah’s demands in exchange for agreeing to extend talks until the end of the year, including the release of nearly a thousand Palestinian prisoners, according to reports in Arab media.

On Monday, sources said the release of US-born Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was a way to unblock the talks impasse and coax Israel into agreeing to the releases and the settlement freeze.

Pollard was arrested in Washington in 1985 and condemned to life imprisonment for spying on the United States on behalf of Israel. The proposal could see Pollard freed before the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins in mid-April.

Avi Issacharoff and Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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