The U.S. denied a report that Secretary of State John Kerry offered to release long-imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard in exchange for an Israeli agreement to release more convicted terrorists from prison, which the Palestinians have been demanding to continue peace talks.
Israel Army Radio reported Wednesday morning that the U.S. had offered to release Pollard, 59, as an incentive to keep Israel on schedule for a fourth round of prisoner releases. Pollard has been serving in U.S. prison for 29 years.
"There are currently no plans to release Pollard," said a statement issued by the U.S. National Security Council and the State Department, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated to U.S. diplomats that convincing his cabinet to approve a fourth release of prisoners would be difficult. Under the alleged deal reported by Israel Army Radio, Israel would release 26 prisoners, including 20 Arab citizens of Israel who were convicted of terrorism.
In exchange, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would continue negotiations past the original deadline designated by Kerry, which was at the end of next month.
Israel has for years asked that Pollard, now in poor health, be freed.
Pollard was convicted of giving classified information to Israel while he was working as a Navy intelligence analyst. After serving 30 years in prison, he would be eligible for parole next year.
Several former high-ranking U.S. officials have also said it’s time to commute Pollard’s sentence, including former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb and former CIA chief James Woolsey.
According to a website dedicated to getting Pollard freed, “No one else in the history of the United States has ever received a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally — only Jonathan Pollard.”
The Justice for Jonathan Pollard website asserts that when he was an intelligence analyst, Pollard “discovered that information vital to Israel's security was being deliberately withheld by certain elements within the U.S. national security establishment,” including information on Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Iranian nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs that Israel was legally entitled to know about under a 1983 Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries.
The website states that Pollard has expressed remorse for his actions and “is sorry he did not find a legal means to act upon his concerns for Israel.”
Calls for Pollard’s release are heard widely in Israel from across the political spectrum.
By contrast, the Obama administration’s request that Israel concede to the Palestinian demand to release Israeli Arab terrorism convicts has generated substantial opposition from Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman.
In a Tuesday op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said he would resign if his government goes ahead with the last release of prisoners on March 29.
“Though I was extremely concerned that our government might concede strategically important territory or relinquish parts of our historic homeland, what angered me most was the Palestinian demand as a precursor to even coming to the table that we release more than a hundred of their prisoners — men and women with blood on their hands. In essence, the demand was that we set murderers free for the privilege of negotiating peace,” Danon wrote, adding that releasing terrorists only encourages future terrorist attacks.
A right-wing member of Israel's parliament called the reported Kerry offer “moral degradation.”
"If the Americans are thinking about using Pollard as a bargaining chip, then this is yet another step in the moral deterioration of the foreign policy of President Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, and we should not cooperate with this. I do not want to insult them. There is a lot of strategic cooperation between Israel and the U.S., but they have been showing their immorality bit by bit," said Motti Yogev of the Jewish Home party.
Any potential arrangement, however, could be scuttled by Pollard himself. Israel’s Arutz 7 reported that “Pollard has said in the past that he would not agree to be released in exchange for terrorists.”
The report of the possible exchange came as Kerry interrupted his visit to Italy Wednesday to travel to Jordan to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The secretary of state’s surprise trip aimed “to continue to narrow the gaps between the parties,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
While in Jordan, Kerry was also expected to contact Netanyahu “over the phone or by video conference,” Psaki added.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post incorrectly named the Israeli radio station and the date of its report.