In a desperate bid to salvage the failing Middle East peace talks, the US government is reportedly considering the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in return for concessions from the Israeli Government towards the Palestinians.
Pollard was a US civilian intelligence analyst who handed numerous classified government documents to Israel. He was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison in 1987. No other US citizen has ever received more than ten years in prison for a similar crime, but he is due for parole in 2015.
Pollard’s early release could be part of a deal that would include Israel’s commitment to reduce settlement construction in the West Bank, as well as the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Washington’s unusual offer is an ironic twist in this conflict, as it has traditionally been Israel that has used the release of prisoners as a bargaining tool.
Since the landmark Oslo agreement in 1993, Israel has released more than 23,000 Palestinian prisoners in so-called “gestures of good faith.” Yet an official Palestinian report claimed that Israel has also taken more than 80,000 prisoners between 2000 and 2013.
'It is our position that all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails must be set free. All of them.'
Prisoner releases and amnesty guarantees have been instrumental in attaining lasting peace in other conflicts, such as situations in South Africa and Ireland. Yet, according to Sahar Francis, general director of Palestinian rights organization Addameer, these “goodwill gestures” from Israel have not been about building trust.
“The prisoners issue is central to the Palestinian question, since it has been official Israeli policy to arrest, torture, mistreat, and harass Palestinians for decades. This has affected the whole Palestinian community,” Francis said.
A PLO spokesperson told VICE News on Thursday: “It is our position that all Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails must be set free. All of them.”
For many Palestinians, this is the only rationale to engage in talks with Israel. Speaking under condition of anonymity, a former Palestinian prisoner released by Israel in 2005 told VICE News, “We know the peace talks are a lie. But if one of our prisoners is released it is a victory. That is the only reason we support the negotiations.”
In the end, the US offer to release Pollard may do little to salvage the talks. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his frustration with both parties today. "This is not an open-ended effort, it never has been. It is reality check time," Kerry said. “They say they want to continue, neither party has said they have called it off, but we are not going to sit there indefinitely.”
'Abbas should know that at this point in time his demands are working against him. No Israeli will negotiate with him at any price.'
However, both sides are blaming each other for the impasse. On Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas signed requests applying for membership to 15 United Nations agencies and conventions. Israel sees this as an attempt at statehood outside of the negotiations, and claimed this has created the crisis. Yet Abbas said that he made the move after Israel reneged on an agreement to release the final batch of Palestinians prisoners agreed at last year’s negotiations. Israel claimed the release was dependent on the Palestinians agreeing to continue negotiations past a deadline at the end of April.
Israel's finance minister, Yair Lapid, told Reuters that he wondered whether Abbas actually wanted a deal, referring to a long list of demands published by the Maan news agency.
"(Abbas) should know that at this point in time his demands are working against him. No Israeli will negotiate with him at any price," said Lapid, a centrist member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.
So many in Israel and Palestine remain skeptical of the merit of the peace negotiations.
“You can’t bribe your way to peace," Emily Michaels, an Israeli-American activist, told VICE News. "Is releasing Pollard going to make Israel pull half a millions settlers from the West Bank and East Jerusalem? Is it going to give Palestinian control over their borders, their resources, and their lives? No. Its desperate, it’s bullshit, and everyone knows it.”