There are many good reasons for the United States to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard from prison, which as of the Journal’s press time on April 1 was under discussion. The continuation of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is not one of them. The fact that the United States is currently considering such a move — releasing Pollard as part of a deal that would include the release of Palestinian prisoners and Arab-Israeli prisoners by Israel, and a Palestinian acceptance of more negotiations — is testimony to all sides’ desperation.
Well, not all sides are desperate: The Palestinians are definitely getting the upper hand with this deal, if it materializes. And they are winning for a good reason. They are the only ones to have a plan B if talks fail. They will go to the United Nations; they will pursue their Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign; they will try to battle Israel through all diplomatic means available to them, hoping that a devastated American administration won’t stand in their way.
The United States has done an immoral thing in keeping Pollard in prison as a bargaining chip for negotiations with Israel. His release should have been based on “both legal and humanitarian considerations,” as Alan Dershowitz and Irwin Cotler have written. “The time has come for the U.S. government to keep its word and reaffirm what it agreed to tell the judge back in 1986: namely, that a sentence of years, 28-plus years, rather than a sentence of life imprisonment is enough to satisfy the demands of justice for Jonathan Pollard.”
Yet, Pollard has always been a bargaining chip. The U.S. offered him as such, and then backtracked, in the mid-1990s, when Bill Clinton was forced by his CIA chief George Tenet to reconsider his offer to Benjamin Netanyahu — or face a scandal prompting resignation. Now the United States might be putting such an offer on the table again, but it still has to be finalized. (The New York Times reports: “A decision to release Mr. Pollard would be in the context of a broader agreement to extend the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, officials said, and would require President Obama’s approval.”)
The idea back in the ’90s was to pave Netanyahu’s path to an interim agreement, to make it politically easier for him to sign a deal that involved Israel caving in Hebron. The idea today is similar: Netanyahu faces tough opposition to a release of more Palestinian prisoners in exchange for very little (more negotiations). The opposition to the release of Israeli-Arab terrorists is even tougher, as it essentially lets Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas become a savior of Israeli citizens.
Pollard is the supposed sweetener that will enable Netanyahu to pass such a lousy deal. Israel’s right wing is the toughest obstacle to the release of Palestinian prisoners, but is also the loudest advocate for Pollard’s release. You can already hear the speakers on the right explaining — rightly — that Pollard has nothing to do with peace negotiations. Still, dangling the possibility of his release will make it easier for right-wing leaders, for Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel and the rest of them, to vote against the deal, but to refrain from blowing up the coalition because of it.
That the United States is pulling out the Pollard card at this juncture is definitely a sign of desperation. For years it has been assumed and implied that a release of Pollard would only be on the table in exchange for big things — a peace deal, or something close to getting to a peace deal. Letting go of this card in exchange for more months of torturous negotiations is hardly a good bargain for the U.S.
Yes, the U.S. still says that it will only serve to advance negotiations in the context of a “broader agreement.” Alas, there’s no broader agreement bargain at the moment. If the U.S. wants to keep pursuing negotiations, it might have to make do with the little it can get. Surely, the Obama administration could drop the Israeli-Palestinian issue from its portfolio of urgent missions — and that would be a threat to Israel, because it doesn’t have a plan B. But such an admission of failure, the personal failure of the secretary of state to achieve even the small things that he made a priority, is probably too much for John Kerry to swallow at this moment. So, you see, an allegedly “obsessed” secretary can be a blessing. If not for peace, at least for one prisoner.