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Pollard On the Table, Off the Table

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POLLARD ISRAEL
GALI TIBBON via Getty Images

Once again, Israeli and Palestinian leaders are locked in the recurring endgame of... whether to continue talks which might lead to negotiations over final status. For the moment, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas seems to be rejecting the latest interim terms, but the dynamic around the possible release of Jonathan Pollard deserves some analysis.

The Obama administration seemed increasingly inclined to release Pollard, the convicted Israeli spy, to help incentivize Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's release of yet more Palestinian prisoners (to help Abbas stay alive politically) and to take a few demonstrable actions to hold down new settlement construction.

Reportedly, Pollard -- in federal custody since 1986 -- has renounced any such deal, saying he doesn't want to be released as an inducement to Israel releasing convicted terrorists (many of them serving as long as himself). Will Pollard refuse to leave his Federal Correctional Facility at the appointed time?

More broadly, Pollard has actively promoted his own release as a cause célèbre in Israel and within the organized American Jewish community. This has come at a cost to Israel's national security, by reminding the U.S. defense and intelligence community of his (and Israel's) past offenses. If Israel continues to rely on military and intelligence cooperation with Washington, in order to keep the Jewish state safe from terrorists and other threats, then Pollard's case has already compromised the safety and security of Israelis.

I don't begrudge Pollard from pleading his case, but this new deal is no more or less perverse than the rest of the campaign for his release. Does he honestly believe his own legitimate fight for freedom hasn't come at a cost to Israel? Three decades since his initial arrest, the national defense establishment retains an enhanced level of resentment and suspicion toward Israel.

Many observers believe Pollard was unfairly sentenced to life. But unlike Gilad Shalit and other imprisoned Israelis, who were released under past prisoner swaps, he has not been denied due process or visitation, or review under the rule of law.

As for Netanyahu and Abbas, it's now unrealistic to think either of them sees any chance of a substantive, final deal emerging from the current process. Each of them must now be focused on avoiding blame if/when the process collapses, and walking away with as many tangible and political deliverables as possible. Within this fire-sale context, Abbas' apparent decision to scuttle this deal is difficult to understand.

Each side, in its own way, has expected to be incentivized along, which suggests neither party sees resolving the conflict as an end in itself. At the very least, third-party would-be peacemakers have their work cut out for them.

Regardless of the emotional toll from releasing killers or enablers of past terror attacks, any of the same people denouncing a Pollard swap also oppose any steps to advance peace talks at this time. A significant slice of the opposition to a prisoner release, while based on sincere beliefs, is not a credible gauge of the wisdom or justice of a Pollard swap per se. These are the un-convincible.

Some Israelis who oppose Pollard's release as part of a prisoner swap would probably have no problem with receiving more Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, or new U.S. export credits, or enhanced intelligence cooperation. Releasing unrepentant terrorists brings additional baggage. But many of those opposing any prisoner swap, and especially the Pollard piece, also oppose the current process altogether, if not also any territorial compromise in the West Bank. Ever.

If Pollard has become such a bargaining chip, that's partly because his advocates have done such a good job championing his case. Pollard's crimes may be viewed in some pro-Israel circles as heroic and idealistic, but they also involved a level of calculating cynicism on the part of himself and his Israeli handlers -- call it espionage. It's also poetic that, the first time he was Prime Minister, Netanyahu tried very hard to get Pollard released as part of a deal with the Palestinians... It may be a bit late for shock and outrage at such a deal today.

Natan Sharansky was released from Soviet gulag as part of a 1986 prisoner exchange, where mostly guilty Communist spies were exchanged across Berlin's Glienicke Bridge for somewhat (or entirely) innocent Soviet prisoners. The U.S. security establishment and its supporters didn't object, because freeing Sharansky was a big get. For most Israelis, Pollard would be a big get, and -- ideally -- so would some progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. We can blame Abbas for the lack of progress, but it seems there's more Netanyahu and the U.S. team could have done over the years to make the case to their own people and to the Palestinians.

P.S. Offering to release Pollard under any circumstances -- without a solid guarantee that it goes through -- would make it much harder for Washington to justify his continued incarceration, under any circumstances.