WASHINGTON — For decades he has been both a cause celebre for many Israelis, as well as an emblem of treachery for many Americans: Jonathan J. Pollard, the former US Navy analyst and convicted spy.
Now, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry prepares to return Wednesday to Jerusalem to prevent peace talks from unraveling, the confinement of Pollard for passing military secrets to Israel in the 1980s has been thrust center stage once again — this time over whether his freedom should be part of a controversial prisoner release deal.
On Tuesday, Israel released the third of four groups of Palestinian prisoners as part of an interim agreement Kerry reached in August to restart negotiations over the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
But top Israeli officials are reportedly refusing to let go a number of jailed Arabs who held Israeli ID cards — so-called Israeli Arabs — unless the United States releases the 59-year-old Pollard. Pollard was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison, where many US officials believe he should stay for betraying his country. He is being held
in a federal penitentiary in North Carolina.
Quoting unnamed officials in the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Hebrew language Ma’ariv newspaper reported Tuesday that the Israeli government has relayed a clear demand for Pollard’s release to US officials on the eve of Kerry’s visit.
“We will release Israeli Arabs only in exchange for Pollard,” an official is quoted as telling the paper.
In response, Palestinian officials are accusing Israel of introducing an outlandish demand as a means of torpedoing the talks.
Other Israeli media have also reported that US officials have indicated they would be willing to discuss the Pollard case, though the Obama administration has declined to address publicly whether Pollard’s imprisonment is being reviewed as part of the broader negotiations.
“I know there have been a lot of rumors out there, and I’m just not going to get into the details of fact-checking whether those are true or not,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Monday.
The White House on Dec. 24 said its position remained unchanged from when President Obama visited Israel in March and said he had “no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately.’’ Obama added at the time: “What I am going to be doing is to make sure that he is accorded the same kinds of review as others.”
The reported Pollard demand complicates Kerry’s mission this week. The secretary is making his 10th trip to the region in less than a year, hoping to convince the two parties by April to reach an agreement on “final status” issues. Those include the status of Jerusalem in any future Palestinian state, permanent borders, and security guarantees, possibly including foreign peacekeepers.
A number of circumstances are imperiling the talks, including the continued construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in 1967, and a new round of Palestinian violence.
Pollard, a civilian intelligence analyst, was convicted for sharing satellite photos and other intelligence information with Israel over a period of several years. He was first enlisted by Israel after the United States officially curtailed some intelligence sharing with its longtime ally in the wake of the Israeli Air Force’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
When he was caught, Pollard agreed to plead guilty in return for a lighter sentence. But the judge in the case intervened and handed down a life sentence, which some legal experts considered unfairly harsh given that the type of information he shared was previously made available to the longtime American ally through official channels.
Supporters of Pollard’s suspect it was a secret affidavit from then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger that prompted the judge to overturn the plea agreement and hand down the maximum sentence.
Pollard’s release has attracted unusually broad political support in Israel, which granted him citizenship in 1995.
Both the hawkish Netanyahu as well as Israel’s president and peace advocate Shimon Peres have repeatedly advocated for it. Recent revelations that the US National Security Agency was spying on the e-mail communications of Israeli leaders only strengthened the view in Israel that Pollard’s freedom was overdue.
In the United States, Pollard counts among his advocates Nobel Peace Prize winner and Boston University professor Eli Wiesel and former United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson, who earlier this month wrote a letter to President Obama urging he set Pollard free.
“The most effective argument is on humanitarian grounds,” Richardson said at the time.
Others agree that Pollard, who will be eligible for parole in 2015, deserves a new hearing whether he has influential supporters or not.
“[Pollard] did neither more nor less than supply them with what had been denied as a result of the Osirak flap,” said Angelo Codevilla, a professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and former staff member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who has followed Pollard’s case from the start. “He should have gone to jail, no question about that. But not for life.”
Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, has visited Pollard in prison with Wiesel.
“He pleaded guilty, he was promised a sentence that was not substantial. At the last moment the judge, as was his right, decided to a impose life in prison,” said Reich. “The sentence was unjustified. What he did was wrong and he deserved to be imprisoned. He should be freed on humanitarian grounds and now is a good time to do it.”
Any easing of Pollard’s sentence, however, would likely meet fierce resistance from the US spy community. When President Bill Clinton considered it in 1998, then-CIA Director George Tenet threatened to resign. Tenet recalled in his memoir, “At the Center of the Storm,” what he told Clinton at the time.
“If a spy is let out as a consequence of these negotiations, I will never be able to lead my building.”
But not everyone is convinced that there would now be the same outcry.
“Keep in mind his views on Pollard were pertinent to that time,” said Bill Harlow, a former agency official, “and not necessarily transferable to the current environment.”
What is clear is that the United States believes the release of additional Palestinian prisoners by Israel is crucial in creating the atmosphere for more meaningful compromises.
Said the State Department’s Harf: “The Israeli Government’s commitment to release Palestinian prisoners helped enable the start, as we all remember, and the continuation of the final status negotiations, and we believe this is a positive step forward in the overall process.”
Some Israeli analysts believe that Pollard could be a key bargaining chip for Kerry to get Israel to make deeper concessions to the Palestinians.
“If Kerry feels Netanyahu needs Pollard to make such a historic decision,” Barak Ravid wrote Tuesday in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “he won’t hesitate to try to persuade Obama to release Pollard.”Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender.