America’s envoy in Israel sought on Sunday to dampen hopes raised by news reports over the weekend according to which US Secretary of State John Kerry offered to arrange for the release of Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard from an American prison.
“I suggest we don’t believe every media report,” Ambassador Dan Shapiro said in a Hebrew-language interview with Army Radio Sunday morning. “There’s no direct link between Pollard and the [peace] negotiations or the prisoner release. These are different issues.”
According to a report Friday night on Israel’s Channel 10 News, Kerry offered to arrange the release if Israel consented to free Israeli Arab prisoners in the fourth and final phase of a series of agreed-upon prisoner releases.
Citing unnamed Israeli sources, the report explained that Kerry had clarified in his contacts with Israel’s leaders that Pollard’s release had not been approved by President Barack Obama. The report further said Israel doubted that Kerry could actually secure Obama’s approval.
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 week.
Israel has refused to free any Israeli Arab citizens thus far.
The White House and State Department initially declined to comment on the report.
“It’s known that there were discussions in the past between the [Israeli] prime minister and president and President Obama [concerning Pollard],” Shapiro acknowledged. “It’s possible there will be further discussions in the future. But I don’t see a direct link as has been reported.”
Shapiro declined to say what he thought the likelihood of an early release might be, but did not rule it out. He insisted, however, that Pollard “had committed a grave crime, and is in prison after being convicted by our justice system.”
Pollard had the right of any citizen to appeal for a pardon or shortening of his life sentence, he added.
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 and will only be eligible for parole in 2015. 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 in light of recent revelations that the US spied on Israeli prime ministers and other senior officials in 2008 and 2009.
Rafi Eitan, a former cabinet minister who was one of the key Israeli intelligence officials who handled Pollard when he spied against the US, insisted on Sunday that Pollard “did no damage” to the United States.
He told Army Radio that when Pollard was arrested, there was an understanding between Israeli and American officials that Pollard would go free after 10 years, but these plans were torpedoed when then-defense secretary Caspar Weinberger raised additional “false” allegations against Pollard.
Eitan urged Netanyahu to push relations with the US “almost to the breaking point” over the issue, including refusing to free prisoners in the context of peace talks.