JERUSALEM (AP) — In an improbable twist, the fate of an imprisoned American who spied for Israel could now play a big role in rescuing Middle East peace negotiations after a dramatic Palestinian rebuff to Secretary of State John Kerry.
With Kerry’s efforts in tatters, a three-way deal that includes the United States releasing Jonathan Pollard could provide incentives for Israel and the Palestinians to break the deadlock and extend the talks.
But critics say the sudden focus on Pollard has turned attention away from the real issues that need to be addressed to end decades of conflict. And it may have raised the Palestinians’ asking price: They realize that with Israel so eager to free Pollard, they may be able to hold out for broader Israeli concessions.
Palestinian officials, for instance, say they have discussed the possibility of seeking the release of the top Palestinian prisoner held by Israel, Marwan Barghouti, as part of any arrangement involving Pollard. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal deliberations, said they have to date been hesitant to raise the issue in connection with Pollard for fear of being seen as meddling in internal American affairs.
Negotiations on a peace deal hit a major snag late Tuesday when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas abruptly renewed a campaign for recognition of the “state of Palestine” in international bodies.
Abbas had promised to suspend the campaign when peace talks resumed in July but angrily reversed course after Israel failed to carry out a promised prisoner release. The move forced Kerry to cancel a planned trip back to the region and threatened to derail the talks completely.
U.S. officials said Kerry spoke with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the day and that negotiators from the sides would meet later Wednesday in Jerusalem.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. was “disappointed by the unhelpful unilateral actions that both parties have taken in recent days.” He said Kerry remains in close touch with negotiating teams, but added that the parties “must take the necessary steps if they want to move forward.”
Palestinian officials said Wednesday they had no desire to quit the negotiations.
“We hope that Kerry renews his efforts in the coming days,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Palestinian official, said in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “We don’t want his mission to fail.”
Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour, who delivered copies of the recognition documents to U.N. officials Wednesday, expressed a “willingness and a readiness to continue engaging in the political process.”
Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst convicted of handing reams of classified documents to Israel in the 1980s, could play a key role in that mission.
Pollard, who is 59 and said to be in poor health, became an unlikely part of the negotiations this week when U.S. officials acknowledged they were considering releasing him as part of a package to extend talks beyond the current April 29 deadline.
The admission marked a dramatic turnaround for the U.S. and reflected Kerry’s sense of urgency. After more than 10 trips to the region and numerous phone calls with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Kerry has a great personal stake in keeping his efforts afloat.
A person involved in the talks said Tuesday that Pollard was the centerpiece of an emerging plan to extend talks through the end of the year.
In return, Israel would carry out a promised release of some 30 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, commit to the release of an additional 400 prisoners, and impose a partial freeze on settlement construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians.
That arrangement was thrown into doubt after Abbas’ speech Tuesday night. As the parties speak in the coming days, Pollard’s fate will likely return to the agenda, since his release could deliver something valuable for all sides.
Pollard, a Jewish American who has been granted Israeli citizenship, is widely seen in Israel as a martyr who has been excessively punished. Images of Netanyahu welcoming him home for Passover – the Jewish holiday of liberation from bondage in ancient Egypt – would give the Israeli leader a tremendous public boost.
Pollard’s return would also make it far easier for Netanyahu to win approval for concessions to the Palestinians inside his hard-line coalition.
“This chip of Pollard … is an excellent idea. It allows Netanyahu to deal with his domestic front,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.
For this reason, hard-line members of his government have spoken out against the emerging deal.
Netanyahu’s powerful foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Wednesday he would vote against any additional release of Palestinian prisoners. His deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, has threatened to resign if there is another prisoner deal.
“I think it is a cynical move by Secretary Kerry and by our prime minister to put Pollard on the table. Pollard is a humanitarian issue, and the issue of releasing the terrorists, it’s another issue. You cannot make the linkage between them,” Danon told The Associated Press.
Israel has already freed about 70 prisoners convicted in bloody attacks on Israelis in three previous releases since talks resumed in July.
Netanyahu’s office declined comment Wednesday.
The Palestinians have said they have no interest in Pollard and object to Israel being “rewarded” with him for meeting pledges that have already been made. “Some of these things do not concern us at all and are linked to their relationship with the U.S.,” Abed Rabbo said.
At the same time, Palestinian officials realize that with Netanyahu so eager to see Pollard free, they may be able to hold out for broader Israeli concessions.
The issue marks a high-stakes gamble for Kerry. If Pollard’s freedom leads to a final peace settlement, it could mark a major victory. But if Pollard is freed and the talks fail, it could be a costly embarrassment.
Many current and former U.S. defense officials believe Pollard should remain behind bars. Key lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, say Pollard should not be a bargaining chip.
Earnest, the White House spokesman, would not comment on the criticism, saying only that President Barack Obama has not made a decision.
While Kerry toils to restart talks, he faces a much deeper problem: Eight months of negotiations appear to have made little headway.
Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the U.S. has made a grave mistake by focusing so heavily on Pollard while ignoring the key issues at the heart of the conflict. He said the U.S. should try to broker an interim agreement and present a “vision” for a permanent peace.
The Americans “ended up being the only ones who are ready to make compromises, namely the release of Pollard,” Beilin said. “This is very ridiculous. The Americans are not part of our game. They should have been mediators, but found themselves major players and major payers.”
Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee in Brussels contributed to this report.