U.S. and Israel Discuss Releasing American Spy

Michael R. Gordon and Isabel Kershner - The New York Times - March 31, 2014

JERUSALEM - The United States and Israel are discussing the possible release of Jonathan Jay Pollard, a former American intelligence official serving a life sentence in the United States for spying for Israel, as part of efforts to advance the troubled Middle East peace negotiations, American officials said Monday.

One of the officials, who like others asked not to be identified because they were discussing private deliberations, said no decisions about Mr. Pollard's release had been made. Officials familiar with the negotiations said his possible release was one element in discussions about a broader arrangement that had not yet been reached and that President Obama would need to approve.

Asked for comment on Monday, Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said: "Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence. I do not have any update for you on his status."

The possibility that Mr. Pollard's release would be considered came as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel to try to resolve a dispute between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators over the release of Palestinian prisoners and the continuation of peace talks.

It is the second time that Mr. Kerry has interrupted foreign travels to rush to the Middle East to confer on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which started last summer.

Mr. Kerry met Monday evening with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Mr. Kerry also intended to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, possibly Tuesday morning in Ramallah, but the details had not yet been set.

Israel has agreed to release Palestinian prisoners in phases as part of an understanding under which the Palestinians would hold back from pressing their case for statehood for nine months in the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

With the talks making little apparent headway, however, Israeli officials have been worried that the Palestinians will not negotiate seriously in return for the prisoner releases and do not want to free them unless the Palestinians agree to extend the talks beyond April, the target date for completing the framework accord that would codify the outlines of a comprehensive settlement.

The possible release of Mr. Pollard, 59, whose imprisonment has been a resilient sore point in relations between Israel and the United States, has emerged as potential inducement for Israeli cooperation.

Mr. Pollard, a former United States Navy intelligence analyst, began spying for Israel after he approached an Israeli officer in 1984. When he was discovered 18 months later, he sought refuge in the Israel Embassy in Washington but was refused entry. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

Key figures in the United States defense establishment have adamantly opposed his release over the years.

But Mr. Netanyahu has long pushed for Mr. Pollard's release to balance concessions he has been pressed to make in Middle East peace negotiations, and in recent years Mr. Pollard's case has captured the attention and sympathy of an increasingly broad spectrum of Israelis.

A year ago, when Mr. Obama visited Israel, the call for Mr. Pollard's release came from Israel's dovish president, Shimon Peres, and some of the country's most respected public figures: Nobel Prize-winning scientists, retired generals, celebrated authors and intellectuals who signed, along with more than 175,000 other citizens, an online petition appealing for clemency for Mr. Pollard.

Many Israelis have argued that Mr. Pollard has already served more time in prison than other Americans convicted of spying for an ally. In addition, a growing number of former officials in the United States have called for clemency in recent years, including two former secretaries of state, George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, and a former director of the C.I.A., R. James Woolsey.

The mainstream Israeli support for Mr. Pollard represents an evolution in his case, regarded as one of the most painful and divisive episodes in Israeli-American relations.

At first, when Mr. Pollard was arrested, Israel disowned him, saying that he was an actor in a rogue operation. But he was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, and Mr. Netanyahu, during his first term in office in the late 1990s, officially recognized Mr. Pollard as an Israeli agent.

In a measure of the popular support that Mr. Pollard's case now garners in Israel, the newspaper Yediot Aharonot published excerpts on Monday of an impassioned letter to Mr. Netanyahu from Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was held captive by Hamas in Gaza for five years and released in a lopsided prisoner exchange in 2011.

"At this time, I cannot help but feel the great pain of Jonathan Pollard, who has been sitting in prison for about 29 years - more than five times the length of time I spent in captivity, and in the United States, our great friend," Mr. Shalit wrote, adding, "I am asking you to make it clear to the Americans that before anything else, Jonathan Pollard must go free."

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