Washington Post: Barghouti and Pollard:
Two prisoners at the center of the Mideast peace talks

William Booth - The Washington Post - April 9, 2014

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RAMALLAH, West Bank - The two men have been moldering in jail for years: one a convicted spy, the other a convicted terrorist. To their supporters, they are victims, martyrs and symbols. And their releases could be the diplomatic gestures that allow the collapsing Middle East peace talks to continue, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators say.

Marwan Barghouti, 54, dubbed "Palestine's Nelson Mandela" by supporters, has been incarcerated in Israel's Hadarim prison for the past 12 years, serving five consecutive life sentences for his role as facilitator and mastermind behind murders of Israelis carried out during the second intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s.

Jonathan Pollard, 59, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst, caught spying for Israel in 1985, is beginning his 29th year at a federal prison in North Carolina. His supporters say his sentence is excessive, and no one convicted of similar charges today would serve more than 10 years.

Before peace talks imploded two weeks ago, U.S. diplomats were discussing with their Israeli counterparts an early release for Pollard in a complex deal to keep peace talks going. Pollard is serving a life sentence but eligible for parole in 2015.

On a parallel track, Palestinians have been pushing for Barghouti's release. At a White House meeting in March between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama, Barghouti's case was mentioned as one way to end the impasse.

"The link has been established: Free Barghouti, along with the other Palestinians prisoners, and let the Israelis and Americans do what they want with Pollard. He is not our concern," said Ziad Abu Ein, deputy minister of prisoner affairs for the Palestinian Authority.

Barghouti was arrested by Israeli security forces at Abu Ein's home in 2002. "They threatened to blow my house up," Abu Ein said, and smiled. "So he did the right thing and surrendered." He said that Barghouti would be an excellent vice president.

Successor to Abbas?

According to opinion polls, Barghouti is the most popular political figure among Palestinians today.

Once a political rival, Barghouti is widely considered a potent, pragmatic, potential successor to Abbas, who is 79 and has threatened that this is his last bid at making peace before retirement.

"We want him home," said Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, who is also a lawyer and runs an organization dedicated to his release. "This is the time to talk about his release," she said.

After two decades in Israeli jails, Barghouti now speaks fluent Hebrew. He has renounced violence as a tactic, his wife said. "He wants to find a way forward for both Israelis and Palestinians."

Barghouti reads six to eight books a month, she said, shares a cell with his cousin, has access to television and spends his time in political discourse with other prisoners.

"His mind is more clear; the experience of prison, his reading, his contemplation, has expanded his horizons," Fadwa Barghouti said.

"In talks, his name is always at the top of the list," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a former Palestinian negotiator who resigned his post in protest of continued Israeli construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"He is a leader, which is why we want to see him among us again," Shtayyeh said.

Supporters who seek the release of Pollard also say this is the moment.

"Pollard is the center, at the very core, of any deal to continue the talks," said Nachman Shai, a member of Israel parliament and a leader of the Labor Party, which represents the center-left in Israel.

Immediately after his arrest, Pollard was an embarrassment for Israelis, who initially refused to acknowledge that he was a spy in their employ. An American Jew, he was paid by his Israeli handlers to steal a trove of classified documents at the height of the Cold War. The American intelligence community branded Pollard a traitor.

"At the time of his arrest, I would say that 99 percent of Israelis rejected him," Nachman said.

Israelis didn't like the idea of an American Jew spying on a close ally, the United States. "It raised all the old ideas about dual loyalties," Nachman said.

"His cause was first adopted by the extreme right wing, then the right wing, then the orthodox, the religious nationalists, and now even the left," Shai said.

After years in prison, Pollard was awarded Israeli citizenship, and his freedom has become a rallying cry among average Israelis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once visited Pollard in prison, would receive a political windfall with his release and might be able to use Pollard's freedom to keep his fragile coalition government intact if peace talks continue.

Still, not a national hero

"Politicians have made a lot of headlines about Pollard. But even today, Israelis don't see him as a national hero. We know he is a dubious character." said Uri Dromi, a columnist and former chief spokesman for prime ministers Itzak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

But Israelis also feel Pollard has been treated unfairly.

"For Israelis, it is a matter of justice, of humanity," Dromi said. "It's so strange, to keep him in prison for so long."

His supporters say Pollard has been held longer than many other spies convicted of similar offenses. They contend that he did no harm to the United States and that the information Pollard turned over to his Israeli counterparts was mostly about Arab states and the Soviet Union.

Dromi said there are strong currents in Jewish tradition and Israeli society and military that place great importance on redeeming a captive and never leaving a fallen comrade behind.

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