THE OBAMA administration’s Middle East diplomacy has degenerated from a bid to conclude a final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement this month to an attempt to win agreement on a preliminary “framework” to a desperate race to prevent the talks from collapsing. According to widespread reports Tuesday, that last-ditch effort included discussion of the possible release of Jonathan Pollard, a former Navy civilian intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel. His pardon would be bartered for Israel’s freeing of Palestinian prisoners.
The prospect of clemency for Mr. Pollard generates strong feelings from both those who believe his crimes were too serious to justify early release and those who say that his 28 years of imprisonment is enough. Whichever your view, what’s striking about this scenario is that President Obama would act not on the merits of the case but rather as a quid pro quo in a diplomatic deal involving Israelis and Palestinians.
The obvious question is why the United States is in the position of offering its own concessions rather than brokering compromise between the two parties that are supposed to be negotiating. The simple answer is that, despite lavishing his time and attention on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas over the past year, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has failed to persuade either to budge from widely divergent positions on the terms of Palestinian statehood. Mr. Pollard’s possible release looks like a way to buy time — and avoid admitting defeat.
Mr. Kerry embarked on his Mideast initiative in spite of the Obama administration’s previous failure to mediate talks between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas and the abundant evidence that the two men lack the will or trust in each other to forge a deal. He wagered that he could persuade Mr. Abbas to accept Mr. Netanyahu’s key demands — including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state — in exchange for a commitment to a Palestinian state based on Israel’s 1967 borders.
Yet the 79-year-old Palestinian leader has proved recalcitrant — just as in two previous rounds of U.S.-sponsored peace talks. Mr. Abbas publicly rejected Mr. Kerry’s terms and refused to commit to an extension of the talks, prompting Mr. Netanyahu to delay a scheduled release of two dozen Palestinian prisoners last weekend. Mr. Kerry then tried to forge a deal under which Israel would release the prisoners and another 400 detainees and restrict Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, the United States would free Mr. Pollard and Palestinians would continue the negotiations until the end of the year while refraining from unilateral initiatives at the United Nations.
That proposal appeared to crumble Tuesday after Mr. Abbas announced that he was advancing the Palestinians’ bid for membership in 15 international agencies and conventions. Mr. Kerry insisted that it was “completely premature” to declare the peace process dead and that “a lot of possibilities” could still be explored. For the moment, however, those possibilities don’t seem to include a genuine willingness by Israelis and Palestinians to compromise. Until one appears, the United States should refrain from its own extraordinary gestures, including the release of Mr. Pollard.