Protestors call for Jonathan Pollard to be released from prison. / Getty Images
Jonathan Pollard — the man who stole huge amounts of intelligence and gave it to Israel and has been sitting in an American prison for 30 years — has become a chip to be traded in order keep Israeli-Palestinian talks going.
Pollard is a very divisive figure: he has staunch supporters who believe that, for humanitarian reasons and because he helped beleaguered Israel, the three decades he’s spent in jail is enough. Others believe that because he was traitor who, allegedly, also tried selling intelligence to other states, he isn’t even an Israeli patriot; he was simply greedy.
Pollard has taken on a larger role in the drama of Israeli-Palestinian talks. In return for extending negotiations, according to reports, the U.S. will release Pollard and Israel will release 400 Palestinian prisoners and quietly freeze (some?) settlement building (excluding in Jerusalem). There is, rightly, a lot of disbelief about this plan. Jeffrey Goldberg thinks it means the talks are close to collapse and won’t do much in the end, anyway. Michael Cohen thinks releasing Pollard to extend talks is just stupid. I share their skepticism, but wonder if there is something more going on here. Perhaps it’s not a sign of the breakdown in talks, but a sign of their seriousness.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s not at all clear things are going well. The reported deal extends talks into 2015 — another nine months from now. Who knows what new international crisis might develop in that time to distract the Obama Administration from the Israeli-Palestinian arena. John Kerry might simply be too exhausted to keep up the pace. Spoilers in Israel or in Palestine could undermine popular support and political will. Meanwhile, the American rush to placate Benjamin Netanyahu on every issue has led to such an imbalance in talks that it wouldn’t be a surprise if the whole edifice fell over by then.
But it’s also possible that the wheeling-dealing is a signal talks aren’t collapsing, but nearing the end game. Here’s why: First, it was never going to be easy to solve the final status issues, which now include another issue (recognition of Israel as a Jewish state), so delays should be normal. Second, it should be expected that as resolution becomes more realistic, both sides would get nervous and uncertain, and throw up roadblocks to give themselves more time to think about it and to get the best deal possible. (The Palestinians, too, have been threatening to walk.)
Third, Netanyahu knows that any sign that an actual deal is coming means Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home would leave the coalition. Though he has several other options to reform the coalition, he still needs to amass a critical number of domestic political points to ride out the criticism he’ll receive and the uncertainty that the public feels regarding a Palestinian state.
Fourth, it’s likely that Bibi feels the same thing most in Israel feel: that Israel is giving up concrete, material concessions (land, prisoners) in return only for promises. Like a short-term military presence in the Jordan Valley, Pollard is a tangible concession Bibi can show Israelis to prove he and they aren’t suckers.
Insiders say that most of what we read in the public media about the talks is inaccurate. Still, the amount of energy spent on getting only to a framework agreement is disconcerting. Either way, only time will tell if the Pollard gambit was really a sign that things are moving in the right direction, or whether Bibi has simply played everybody else for a sucker.