WASHINGTON: The White House says US President Barack Obama has not made a decision on whether to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
People familiar with Mideast peace talks say the United States is talking to Israel about releasing Pollard early from his life sentence as an incentive to the Israelis to keep the troubled negotiations with the Palestinians afloat.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday that while no decision has been made, “there are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena.”
Releasing Pollard, a thorn in US-Israeli relations for three decades, would be an extraordinary step underscoring the urgency of US peace efforts.
Two people describing the talks cautioned that such a release — which would be a dramatic turnaround from previous refusals — was far from certain and that discussions with Israel on the matter were continuing. Carney would not elaborate on the US discussions with the Israelis.
In return for the release, the people close to the talks said, Israel would have to undertake significant concessions to the Palestinians in Middle East negotiations. Such concessions could include some kind of freeze on Israeli settlements in disputed territory, the release of Palestinian prisoners beyond those Israel has already agreed to free and a guarantee that Israel would stay at the negotiating table beyond an end-of-April deadline.
Secretary of State John Kerry met for several hours late Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before sitting down with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and another Palestinian official. Kerry met again with Netanyahu yesterday.
US defence and intelligence officials have consistently argued against releasing Pollard. Pollard, an American Jew, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the US Navy when he gave thousands of classified documents to his Israeli handlers.
The Israelis recruited him to pass along US secrets including satellite photos and data on Soviet weaponry in the 1980s. He was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to Israel and received a life sentence. President Barack Obama and his predecessors have refused to release Pollard despite pleas from Israeli leaders.
Apart from any negotiations in the meantime, Pollard could be released from prison on November 21, 2015 — 30 years after his arrest. He has been serving his sentence at a federal facility in Butner, North Carolina.
Carney on Monday declined to discuss any possible deal. “He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence. I don’t have any updates on his situation,” Carney told reporters at the White House.
Ahead of his trip to the Middle East last March, Obama told Israeli television station Channel 2 that Pollard “is an individual who committed a very serious crime here in the United States”. “He’s been serving his time,” Obama said. “I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately but what I am going to be doing is to make sure that he, like every other American who’s been sentenced, is accorded the same kinds of review and the same examination of the equities that any other individual would provide.”
The president said at the time that he recognised the emotions involved in the situation. But he added, “As the president, my first obligation is to observe the law here in the United States and to make sure that it’s applied consistently.”
Various suggestions for deals for Pollard’s release have been floated over the years, and they were raised again last week in the Israeli press.
Pollard is said to be in poor health. His case has become a rallying cry in Israel, where leaders say his nearly three decades in US prison amounts to excessive punishment. Pollard enjoys widespread sympathy among Israelis, and Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have routinely pressed Obama and other US presidents for his pardon or release.
Stiff opposition from the American military and intelligence community has deterred the White House. Intelligence officials have argued that his release would harm national security and that the US must maintain a strong deterrent to allies by warning them of the consequences of spying on American soil.
In recent years, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, along with prominent figures such as Sen John McCain and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, have all called for Pollard’s release. Netanyahu has sought to link a Pollard release to peace talks before. During his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu pressed the issue as part of a 1998 interim deal with the Palestinians. President Bill Clinton rejected that request after fierce opposition from US intelligence officials.
Also during Netanyahu’s first term, in the late 1990s, Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship. While Netanyahu was out of office, he visited Pollard in prison. In 2011, Netanyahu formally appealed to the US for the release and made a personal plea to allow him to attend his father’s funeral. The US denied those requests.
RAMALLAH: In a surprise move that could jeopardise US peace efforts, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday resumed a bid for further Palestinian recognition by the United Nations, despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel.
Abbas signed “State of Palestine” applications for 15 UN agencies in a hastily convened ceremony televised live from his West Bank headquarters. Abbas said he was compelled to take action because Israel had failed to carry out a promised released of veteran Palestinian prisoners.
“We will apply to 15 agencies and conventions immediately,” Abbas said after leading members of his Fatah movement and the Palestine Liberation Organisation supported the decision unanimously by a show of hands. Abbas insisted that he is still interested in negotiating a deal with Israel on the terms of Palestinian statehood, saying he and his aides “will continue our efforts to reach a peaceful solution through negotiations”.
Such talks resumed in late July, after a push by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and were to last for nine months, until the end of April. During this period, Abbas promised to suspend his UN bid, while Israel was to release 104 veteran Palestinian prisoners in four stages. The Palestinians say the fourth group of prisoners was due to be released by the end of March, and that Israel failed to live up to its promise.
It was not immediately clear if Abbas’ decision was a negotiating tactic or signalled a fundamental shift in strategy. In his brief comments, the Palestinian leader said he is “not seeking a conflict with anyone, particularly the US”. AP