JERUSALEM — The Obama administration is considering the early release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of an effort to keep U.S.-backed peace talks from collapsing, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
The acknowledgment came as Secretary of State John F. Kerry made an abrupt detour to the region amid a standoff between Israel and the Palestinians that has left the negotiations in peril.
Pollard’s release would be an enormous prize for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, providing President Obama with a significant chit in the U.S.-led effort to create an independent Palestinian state.
The Obama administration, like Republican and Democratic administrations before it, has publicly resisted strong Israeli lobbying to lighten Pollard’s sentence for spying for a friendly country. But Pollard’s fate was always presumed to be a potential element of any U.S.-backed solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry, accompanied by U.S. mediator Martin Indyk, met with Netanyahu for four hours Monday night, postponing a planned late-night meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He met instead with the Palestinian chief negotiator.
The main subject of Kerry’s emergency visit was how to extend peace talks after an impasse over a delay in the release of Palestinian prisoners. But the separate question of Pollard’s fate, and what his release might buy for Israel and the United States, hung over the discussion.
A U.S. official said that Pollard’s early release is under discussion but that no decision has been made. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing internal debate about a politically sensitive issue.
A senior Israeli government official confirmed that the Israelis were seeking Pollard’s early release as part of negotiations on extending talks.
His release now would probably require a grant of clemency from Obama, but the White House could also recommend an early release late next year, when Pollard becomes eligible for it. The political question for the White House is whether to spend the chit now, later — in what is expected to be a drawn-out peace negotiation — or at all.
Pollard, 59, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy who was arrested in 1985 after providing classified information to Israeli agents. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for release in November 2015. He has served almost 29 years.
Pollard has supporters in Israel across the political spectrum, from old leftists to ultra-nationalists. In 2002, when he was out of office, Netanyahu visited Pollard in prison.
His Israeli backers say that Pollard’s sentence was unduly harsh and that a defendant convicted of the same crime today would receive a maximum of 10 years. The Israelis also note that he was spying not for an enemy state but for an ally of the United States. Pollard, a U.S. citizen, was awarded Israeli citizenship in 1995.
Clemency has eluded Pollard for five U.S. administrations. During the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Wye River, Md., in 1998, Netanyahu pushed for Pollard’s early release. Bill Clinton, president at the time, later wrote in his memoirs: “For all the sympathy Pollard generated in Israel, he was a hard case to push in America; he had sold our country’s secrets for money, not conviction, and for years had not shown any remorse.”
George Tenet, then director of the CIA, recalled in his memoirs telling Clinton in a one-on-one meeting that “if Pollard is released, I will no longer be the director of central intelligence in the morning.”
The deal, Tenet wrote, “would reward a U.S. citizen who spied on his own country, and once word got out (and that would take a nanosecond or two), I would be effectively through as CIA director. What’s more, I should be.”
In a January opinion piece in the New York Times, M.E. Bowman, a former Defense Department liaison officer to the Justice Department and the coordinator of an investigation into the damage done by Pollard, wrote that “there are no other Americans who have given over to an ally information of the quantity and quality that Mr. Pollard has” — material that included the top secret Radio Signal Notations manual, which listed all the known communications links then used by the Soviet Union.
U.S. diplomats have pressed the two sides to move beyond issues such as Pollard and Palestinian prisoners and focus on issues such as borders and security arrangements that would allow for two states for two peoples.
“Israelis and Palestinians have both made tough choices, and as we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
Netanyahu refused to carry out the scheduled release this past weekend of about two dozen Palestinian prisoners, and Abbas has threatened to walk out with a month to go before Kerry’s deadline for an outline of a peace deal.
Netanyahu told his Likud party Sunday that he will not allow the release unless Palestinians agree to extend talks, and he warned that he would refuse to do it at all unless assured that the release would be in Israel’s interest.
Over the weekend, reports circulated in the Hebrew and Arabic press that Netanyahu was prepared to offer to free an additional 400 prisoners, including many young offenders and those sentenced to short terms, if the Palestinians would continue the talks.
Kerry is seeking a face-saving way to keep the peace talks going, whether or not the prisoners are released soon. He would not predict the outcome of his efforts ahead of the talks.
“It’s really a question between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and what Prime Minister Netanyahu is prepared to do,” Kerry said Sunday night in Paris. “He’s working diligently, I know.”
Kerry was in Paris over the weekend for discussions with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the crisis in Ukraine.
Officials close to Israel’s hard-line economics minister, Naftali Bennett, said the plan for peace Kerry has advanced until now “would lead to the dismantling of the current coalition government in Israel.”
Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of Bennett’s Jewish Home party, said he will advise his party to leave the coalition if more Palestinian prisoners are freed.
The prisoners are a highly emotional issue for both sides. Israelis say their government is freeing murderers in order to make peace, while the Palestinians view the prisoners as heroes — freedom fighters who have served long sentences in Israeli jails essentially as POWs.
Separately Monday, Israeli lawmaker Isaac Herzog, who as head of the Labor Party leads the parliamentary opposition, traveled to the Jordanian capital, Amman, and met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
“There is a one-time opportunity to reach an agreement in the Middle East, and we must find the formula that doesn’t blow up the negotiations,” the monarch told Herzog, according to a statement from Herzog’s office.
Herzog told Abdullah that his party and most of the opposition recognize the need to reach peace. Herzog has said that if Netanyahu’s coalition falls apart over the prisoner releases or the peace negotiations, the Labor Party would be ready to join the government under Netanyahu.
Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.