By Jeremy Herb - 04/01/14 02:14 PM EDT
The leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees joined other lawmakers Tuesday in slamming the notion that the United States should release Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel who has been imprisoned for decades.
Several senators in both parties said Pollard should not be part of the Middle East peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Pollard's release has been long sought be Israel, and a number of lawmakers over the years have urged clemency for the prisoner, who has said he acted only to help a U.S. ally.
But opposition to Pollard's release also runs deep, particularly with members involved in intelligence issues.
Several, like Graham, expressed skepticism about using Pollard's release as a chit in negotiations to get the Israelis and Palestinians to continue talking.
“It’s hard for me to see how that would jumpstart” the talks, said Senate Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). “It’s one thing after an agreement. It’s totally another thing before an agreement.”
House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said including Pollard in the negotiations was a “serious mistake.”
"There is no reason to put him as part of this negotiation," Rogers said on MSNBC. "It weakens the position of the United States. Again, it relates to issues that should not be related. And it gets us into making the determination of the value of prisoner exchanges. I think that is always a bad idea for the United States to be in that position."
Under the terms of the deal being discussed, Pollard reportedly would be released this month, while Israel would release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners. Israel would also agree to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank, though not in East Jerusalem.
Pollard's release would be a major coup for Netanyahu, who had long advocated for Pollard's freedom. It would make it much easier for him to agree to the release of Palestinian prisoners.
But more conservative politicians in Israel have warned that the Palestinians are asking too much from Netanyahu, and have said they would resign from the government over the deal.
There are also complications on the Palestinian side.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday signed a formal request for Palestine to join 15 United Nations agencies, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Palestine became a non-member state at the U.N. in 2012.
Abbas’ move appeared to violate the terms of the deal involving Pollard's release. Under the agreement, Palestinians would not be able to make any unilateral moves at the United Nations.
Abbas made the announcement in a surprise address to the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s action committee.
The U.S. on Tuesday said it was reviewing Abbas's comments.
The White House said President Obama “has not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said he did not want to “get ahead” of negotiations in the Middle East.
“There are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena,” Carney said.
Not all lawmakers said expressed opposition to Pollard’s release. Several lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee said they wanted to learn more about the potential deal before commenting.
Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate who is staunchly pro-Israel, said he supported releasing Pollard.
“I’ve always felt that he did a bad thing. He should serve time in jail. But the sentence has been disproportionate to others who have done the same,” Schumer said. “So I would welcome it.”
Other lawmakers argued that the crimes he committed against the U.S. as a civilian analyst for the Navy in the 1980s, when he provided Israel with classified U.S. material, did not warrant his release.
“I don’t like folks who have done harm to America be released back into public life,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Particularly when folks who were directly affected by it are not excited by it.”
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said he had a personal reason to want Pollard locked up.
Kirk said when he was a Naval reservist working in the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), he worked in the same office as Pollard.
“I would hope that they wouldn’t do that,” Kirk said. “As a former ONI reservist, I would hope that he would kind of rot in hell in jail for a long time.”
Rebecca Shabad, Mario Trujillo and Justin Sink contributed to this story.