A deal to release convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of an effort to jump-start Middle East peace talks appeared to teeter on Tuesday amid harsh criticism from lawmakers.
Leaders of the House and Senate Intelligence committees expressed outrage over the suggestion that Pollard should be freed, arguing he was imprisoned for giving away valuable classified information for cash.
The deal in the works would free Pollard in exchange for Israel’s release of a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners. Israel would also agree to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank, though not in East Jerusalem.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made the pursuit of a Middle East peace agreement his top priority, has worked energetically in recent days to bring the sides together on a deal.
Negotiations were thrown into doubt Tuesday, however, after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly signed a formal request for the “State of Palestine” to join 15 United Nations agencies, a move opposed by the United States and Israel.
A Wednesday meeting between Abbas and Kerry subsequently was canceled.
The Palestinians had previously agreed not to seek international recognition as a precondition to the peace talks brokered by Kerry. The Israelis had also previously committed to releasing the prisoners but backtracked on that promise over the weekend.
Israel has long sought Pollard’s release, and there has been support for the country’s position in Congress.
But even some of Pollard’s supporters questioned whether it was a good idea to use the spy as a bargaining chip in efforts to get Israel and the Palestinian authority to speak.
“I think Mr. Pollard should be released, but it should not have anything to do with a meaningless resumption of negotiations,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. “It’s really outrageous. Mr. Pollard should be judged on whether he should be released or not, not as a rationale for peace talks. It’s disgusting.”
Both Kerry and the White House downplayed the idea that a deal was close on Tuesday, even as they made it clear they were in hot pursuit.
“There is no agreement at this time,” Kerry said. “There are a lot of possibilities.”
At his daily briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama had made no decision about releasing Pollard, and 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.
Carney also touted the benefits of peace between Israel and the Palestinians in relation to the debate about Pollard.
“The need for and benefits of a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a peace that provides the Palestinians with their own state and provides security to a democratic Jewish state of Israel transcend this issue and many others that are part of the discussions that we have,” he said.
Pollard was convicted in 1985 of providing Israeli agents with classified U.S. government material. He was working as a civilian U.S. Navy analyst at the time.
Israeli handlers sought from Pollard U.S. intelligence on the nuclear and military capabilities of several Arab states and the Soviet Union, according to a report by the National Security Archives of George Washington University.
Pollard’s supporters have argued he did not provide Israel with any information about U.S. security or defenses, and that Israel had not sought that kind of intelligence.
But the government said Pollard’s spying had a serious cost, and there was no guarantee that what he gave the Israelis would not end up in Soviet hands.
Releasing Pollard, as a result, remains controversial nearly 30 years after his conviction.
“It’s a horrible idea,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday. “I find it incredibly offensive that that now is part of the peace process.”
Pollard is serving a life sentence but is eligible for release in November 2015. He pulled out of a parole hearing scheduled this week amid some talk in Israel that he would not want to be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.
Paul Pillar, a former CIA official who served as the national intelligence officer for the Middle East, said Pollard’s spying was “one of the worst intelligence breaches” in U.S. history by volume of compromised materials.
He argued that little had changed except “the passage of time” since the 1990s, when President Clinton balked at releasing Pollard because of the objections of intelligence officials.
Former CIA Director George Tenet, who threatened to resign in 1998 over Pollard’s possible release, would not comment on the reports about Pollard, his spokesman said.
Pillar also questioned whether the release of Pollard would really make a difference in the peace process.
“All we’d be buying is that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would go ahead of the tranche of prisoner release they’ve already agreed to,” he said.
But Lawrence Korb, who served as an assistant secretary for Defense in the 1980s, said the intelligence community’s concerns should be weighed against those who have signaled support for his release.
Korb noted that former CIA Director R. James Woolsey supported Pollard’s release, while former CIA Director Bill Webster, who ran the FBI during Pollard’s arrest, no longer opposed clemency.
“I think if it helps get the Middle East peace process back on track, it’s certainly a good thing for our security, for the Israelis and Palestinians,” Korb said. “And this is something that should be done even if you don’t get anything.”
Justin Sink and Kristina Wong contributed.
Updated at 8:31 p.m.