RAMALLAH, West Bank — The two men have been moldering in jail for years: one a convicted spy, the other a convicted terrorist. To 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, called “Palestine’s Nelson Mandela” by supporters, has been incarcerated in Israel’s Hadarim prison for 12 years, serving five consecutive life sentences for his role as facilitator and mastermind of murders of Israelis 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 that his sentence is excessive and that no one convicted of similar charges today would serve more than 10 years.
Before the peace talks imploded about two weeks ago, U.S. diplomats were discussing with their Israeli counterparts an early release for Pollard in a complex deal to keep the negotiations going. Pollard is serving a life sentence but is eligible for parole in 2015.
On a parallel track, Palestinians have been pushing Barghouti’s case. At a White House meeting last month between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama, Barghouti’s release was mentioned as a condition for agreeing to extend the talks beyond the original April 29 deadline.
“The link has been established: Free Barghouti, along with the other Palestinian 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 in the Palestinian Authority.
Israeli security forces arrested Barghouti at Abu Ein’s home in 2002. “They threatened to blow my house up,” Abu Ein said, then smiled. “So he did the right thing and surrendered.” Abu Ein said Barghouti would be an excellent vice president.
According to opinion polls, Barghouti is the most popular political figure among Palestinians today.
Barghouti, once a political rival to Abbas, is widely considered a potent and pragmatic successor to the 79-year-old leader, who has threatened that this is his last bid at making peace before retirement.
“We want him home,” said Barghouti’s wife, Fadwa, a lawyer who runs an organization dedicated to his release. “This is the time to talk about his release.”
Barghouti — who speaks fluent Hebrew after two decades in Israeli jails — has renounced violence as a tactic, his wife said. “He wants to find a way forward for both Israelis and Palestinians,” she added.
Barghouti reads six to eight books a month, shares a cell with his cousin, has access to television and spends his time in political discourse with other prisoners, his wife said.
“His mind is more clear; the experience of prison, his reading, his contemplation have expanded his horizons,” she 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’s parliament and a leader of the center-left Labor Party.
Pollard’s arrest was an embarrassment for the Israelis, who initially refused to acknowledge that he was a spy in their employ. Pollard, an American Jew, was paid by his Israeli handlers to steal a trove of classified documents at the height of the Cold War. The U.S. intelligence community branded him a traitor.
“At the time of his arrest, I would say that 99 percent of Israelis rejected him,” Shai 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,” Shai 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 the release and might be able to use Pollard’s freedom to keep his fragile coalition government intact if the peace talks continue.
“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. We know he was paid,” said Uri Dromi, a columnist who was a chief spokesman for former prime ministers Yitzhak 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.”
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 as well as in Israeli society and military that place great importance on redeeming a captive and never leaving a fallen comrade behind.