US deal to release Israeli spy for talks nearly set

 

The United States is nearing a deal with Israel that would lead to the release of Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of spying for Israel who has been imprisoned for decades, according to multiple reports. 

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for four hours in Jerusalem into Tuesday morning working out the details in an effort to extend peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians through 2015.

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Pollard has emerged as a key figure in keeping those talks going. 

Under the agreement, the U.S. would release Jonathan Pollard to Israel before Passover on April 14, and Israel would release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners and freeze settlement construction in the West Bank. 

Israeli newspaper Haaretz, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other news outlets, reported on the deal’s details Tuesday.

President Obama and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas now need to approve the deal, The New York Times said. 

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Netanyahu’s cabinet would also have to vote to approve the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners, but a meeting to hold a vote has not yet been scheduled. 

On Tuesday, Pollard waived a parole hearing that was planned for next week, a member of the U.S. Parole Commission told the Associated Press.

It was not immediately clear why Pollard waived the hearing, but there have been some suggestions that Pollard would not want to be part of a deal in which he is released in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners.

“I was personally told he is against being released in such a disgraceful deal,” Israeli Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel said on Tuesday.

Parole Commission administrator Stephen Husk declined to provide further comment to the AP about why Pollard made the request.

Every American president since Pollard’s conviction has resisted Israel’s requests to lessen his sentence. Pollard was arrested in 1985 while working as a civilian analyst for the U.S. Navy after he provided Israeli agents with classified U.S. government material.

He was eventually sentenced to life in prison and has served 29 years. Pollard is eligible for release in November 2015, The Washington Post reports. 

The Obama administration has previously rejected requests by Netanyahu and Israeli officials to release Pollard.

Political figures in Israel, including Netanyahu, have long called for Pollard's release. They have been joined by some U.S. figures, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Kerry interrupted his trip in Europe on Monday to fly to the Middle East to salvage talks — a sign that the negotiations were at a critical juncture.

Kerry flew to Brussels on Tuesday morning to meet with NATO officials, but will return to the Middle East on Wednesday to meet with Abbas in Ramallah. 

If the plan is approved, Israel would release a group of 14 Arab-Israelis who are “deeply controversial” in Israel, The New York Times said. Some Israeli ministers, for instance, could threaten to resign over their release.

Israel would also release 400 more Palestinian prisoners.

Settlement construction would freeze in the West Bank, but not in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want to be the capital of a future state.

Kerry has interrupted overseas trips before to fly to Israel to continue peace negotiations, sometimes announcing the flights at the last minute.

This meeting, however, appeared even more significant as Kerry sought to save the talks he started between the two sides last July.

His goal was to help bridge a final status agreement by the end of April, but both sides have been at a standoff in recent months. Israel, for example, delayed the fourth release of Palestinian prisoners, which was part of the original deal last summer.

This story was posted at 10:01 a.m. and updated at 12:59 p.m.