The United States is talking with Israel about the possibility of releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard early from his life sentence as an incentive in the troubled Mideast peace negotiations, a person familiar with the situation told the Associated Press on Monday. Such an extraordinary step would show the urgency of U.S. efforts to keep negotiations alive.
The person cautioned that a Pollard release — which would be a dramatic turnaround from previous refusals — was far from certain and that discussions with Israel on the matter were continuing. The person spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations on the record.
In return for such a release, Israel would have to undertake significant concessions to the Palestinians. Such concessions could include some kind of freeze on Israeli construction in Yehudah and Shomron, the release of Palestinian prisoners beyond those Israel has already agreed to and a guarantee that Israel would stay at the negotiating table beyond an end-of-April deadline.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday declined to discuss any possible deal.
“I don’t have any updates on his situation,” Carney told reporters at the White House.
National Council of Young Israel executive vice president emeritus Rabbi Pesach Lerner, who spearheads efforts for Pollard’s release in the U.S., urged for an increase in prayers for Pollard.
“Now is a time to say an extra kapittel Tehillim as we continue to daven for Yehonoson Halevi ben Malka, that the ultimate Rofei Cholim and Matir Assurim should grant him a refuah sheleimah and arrange his immediate release from prison.”
The report came as Secretary of State John Kerry broke from his travel schedule for the second time in a week to rush back to the Middle East on Monday to try to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The U.S.-brokered negotiations faced a crisis at the weekend when Israel, seeking a Palestinian commitment to continue negotiations beyond an end-April deadline, failed to press ahead with a release of Palestinian prisoners.
“After consulting with his team, Secretary Kerry decided it would be productive to return to the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said.
Kerry had interrupted a visit to Rome last week to go to Amman for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to convince him to extend the talks.
Officials said he was expected to travel to both Israel and the Palestinian territories in the coming hours.
Kerry had been scheduled to attend a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Israel and the United States are still waiting for an answer from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to proposals made over the weekend involving extension of the negotiations, Haaretz reported.
President Shimon Peres forecast that the crisis will either be resolved or the talks collapse within a day or two. He warned that in the latter event, it will be hard if not impossible to renew them.
Jewish Home MKs have been saying that they will leave the government coalition if additional prisoners, beyond the 26 originally agreed to, are delivered to the Palestinians.
“I recommend avoiding comments until the full picture becomes clear, and this could be a matter of only a few days,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Likud ministers. “Either it is finalized or it blows up. In any case, there will not be a deal without clarification of the compensation Israel will receive, and if there is a deal it will be brought for cabinet approval.”
One possible outcome of a blowup in the talks, if a relatively minor one, is that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni will come under pressure to leave the coalition, officials on the Left have warned.
Livni said she returned to politics after being unseated as chairman of Kadima in order to try to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Her party was the first to join Netanyahu’s government after he agreed to let her lead the negotiations.
“If there is no fourth round of prisoner releases and the talks break down, the purpose of her remaining in the government is gone,” Peace Now Director- General Yariv Oppenheimer said. “If the peace process will collapse and she doesn’t use her political power to leave the coalition, there will be a public campaign against her with demonstrations, ads and pressure. If she leaves, then Yesh Atid will have to leave too.”
Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On called upon Netanyahu to make “courageous decisions,” saying that Israel could not go back on its word to the United States to release the 26 prisoners in the final round. Israeli officials have insisted they are under no such obligation. (With reporting by AP and Reuters.)