Kerry Weighs Wildcard In Mideast Talks: Freedom For Israeli Spy

The U.S. might release a notorious Israeli spy in order to keep peace talks with the Palestinians going — but the idea faces backlash both in the U.S. and abroad.

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Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks he launched last year. His staff even floated a possible way ahead, namely releasing an American who was convicted decades ago of spying for Israel.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the latest twist in a long controversy over the fate of Jonathan Pollard.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Kerry is facing an end of April deadline for peace talks. The Palestinians are threatening to walk out because Israel didn't release the final batch of prisoners. This week, a deal started emerging that would have Jonathan Pollard out of prison. Israeli officials say they would move ahead with plans to release those 26 prisoners, and may release another 400 Palestinians who don't have blood on their hands - that is if Palestinians remain in talks.

Pollard's release is not a done deal, though, says white house spokesman Jay Carney.

JAY CARNEY: I am not going to get ahead of discussions that are under way. What I will tell you is the president has not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard.

KELEMEN: Some analysts see the fact that the administration is even discussing the idea as a sign of desperation from Kerry as peace talks falter. Former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley wouldn't weigh into that, but said Pollard's release would be controversial here in Washington.

STEPHEN HADLEY: I can tell you in the Bush administration, of which I was a part, it was very controversial and George Tenet basically said if you release Pollard, I'm resigning as director of Central Intelligence. And so, it has always been controversial within the U.S. government.

KELEMEN: And Hadley says this has been an issue that Israeli officials have been raising for decades.

HADLEY: This is an American citizen who spied on his government. We take that seriously and we should.

KELEMEN: The former Navy intelligence analyst was arrested in 1985 on charges he sold secrets to Israel. Though his supporters say the life sentence he received was too harsh, past directors of naval intelligence have argued that the sheer volume of documents Pollard passed on was almost unrivaled, at least at that time.

A retired Navy lawyer, Spike Bowman, told recent conference that Pollard was driven by money and offered secrets elsewhere.

SPIKE BOWMAN: He's not a person who was trying just to help the Israelis. He was kind of a pretty venal person here.

KELEMEN: Still, there are some indications that Pollard's release wouldn't be quite as controversial in Washington. He has spent nearly three decades in jail and could soon be up for parole. But his potential release might not have the impact Kerry needs to move the peace process forward.

The secretary cancelled plans to return to the region after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that he would seek membership in international agencies as a Palestinian state, something he had promised to put off during the talks. Kerry says he still thinks the parties want to find a way forward.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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