The Obama administration is considering the release of an Israeli spy who did historic damage to the U.S. in an attempt to salvage U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and Palestine.
Jonathan Pollard, 59, is serving a life term in a North Carolina prison after pleading guilty to spying for Israel from June 1984 until his arrest in November 1985.
The former Navy intelligence officer, who used his Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information access to national defence information, provided Israel with thousands of pages of U.S. intelligence on military and technical intelligence on the Soviet Union, Arab states, and Pakistan.
Pollard’s handler, Israeli superspy Rafi Eitan, told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot in 2006 that Pollard provided “information of such high quality and accuracy, so good and so important to the country’s security,” that “my desire, my appetite to get more and more material overcame me.”
U.S. officials, however, contend that much the information Pollard took — a stack he said would have measured six by six feet and 10 feet high — was unrelated to Israel, Shane Harris of Foreign Policy reports.
“Much of what he took, contrary to what he’d have you believe, had nothing to do with Arab countries or the security of Israel, but had everything to do with U.S. collection methods, to include most specifically against the Soviet Union,” Adm. Thomas Brooks (Ret.), a former director of naval intelligence who Pollard worked for in 1980, told Foreign Policy.
“I think what [Pollard] did is exceeded only by Edward Snowden,” Brooks added, referring to the former NSA contractor who accessed an estimated 1.7 million documents dealing with U.S. surveillance and military capabilities as well as those of American adversaries. (It’s unclear how many files Snowden ended up taking.)
The possible Pollard deal, outlined in the Jerusalem Post, would reportedly extend negotiations past a April 29 deadline and into 2015 while also securing the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were convicted of terror acts before the 1993 Oslo Accords.
“The Israelis would say to Kerry: ‘You’re asking us to allow the release of prisoners who have 50 deaths on their hands. Surely you can release one man who means a lot to the Israeli people,'” Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, told The Times.
Nevertheless, experts and former officials are criticising the potential move.
“If you can’t get the [Israel-Palestine] deal without releasing Pollard, that’s truly a catastrophe,” former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told The Daily Beast.
“I think it shows real desperation,” Miller told The New York Times. “In an era of leaks and surveillance and Snowden, the idea that the administration is going to trade Jonathan Pollard makes absolutely no sense.”
Unresolved issues in peace negotiations include Israeli settlement building, the division of lands, the fate of Jerusalem (considered the capital by both states), Israeli military concerns in the Jordan Valley, and Israel’s demand that Palestine recognise it as a Jewish state.
Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg notes that it’s unclear if the release of Israel’s most notorious spy would resolve any of those issues.
“The right-wing of the [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] coalition, and the right-most members of the prime minister’s own Likud Party, would like very much to welcome Pollard at Ben-Gurion International Airport, but they will not trade land for him, not one inch,” Goldberg writes.
Goldberg considers the potential Pollard deal as a signal that peace talks are close to collapsing, and others see it as an attempt to extend a process that the Obama administration is highly-invested in.
“You may get some kind of muddle through that will get us past the April 29 deadline,” Miller, the former Middle East negotiator, told The Beast. “The question is what the price will be and what will be the costs to American credibility.”
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