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Jonathan Pollard and the Palestinian Prisoner Release

Weighing the cost of peace against the spoils of peace

Adam Chandler
December 30, 2013
Israeli Protestors Gather Outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Residence(Getty)
Israeli Protestors Gather Outside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Residence(Getty)

The considerable outrage on display ahead of Monday’s release of Palestinian prisoners took on an odd sense of normalcy. As the list of the third batch of 26 prisoners was made public, the reactions of anger began anew as Israelis were forced to revisit the heinous crimes of the soon-to-be-free inmates.

All of the prisoners on the list, save three, were convicted of murdering Israeli civilians, soldiers or Palestinians suspected of collaborating with Israel. In a press release Saturday night, the Prime Minister’s Office said all of the inmates had been convicted of offenses committed prior to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994.

In an increasingly familiar sight, protesters and family members of victims gathered outside of the Prime Minister’s Residence in Rehavia to oppose the release. (Two were arrested this time.) The usual suspects in the Israeli political sphere made pronouncements to blast the move and to express pessimism about the peace negotiations for which the prisoners were being released.

On Friday, just ahead of the release, an unconfirmed, but later undenied report broke that Secretary of State John Kerry was considering the release of convicted American spy Jonathan Pollard, who has been in jail since 1987 after being convicted of espionage against the United States, in exchange for the Israeli completion of the Palestinian prisoner release.

A week ago, documents released by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the US in 2008-2009 tracked e-mail accounts belonging to the offices of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert and then-defense minister Ehud Barak.

More and more MKs, including MKs from Arab factions, joined the calls for Pollard’s release following these revelations, saying the US had lost the legitimacy to keep Pollard imprisoned for spying on an ally country when it was doing the same.

This proposal (however unlikely) has less to do with Snowden than it does with the peace process. Pollard’s plight is a cause célèbre, especially among those on the Israeli right. Were Pollard to be delivered, flexibility on the right might also arrive, be in the form a settlement freeze or even more openness toward other concessions in the peace process. As one Dallas Cowboys fan put it:

If Obama really is considering Pollard release–State not denying it–likely means some substantial progress in talks

— Jordan Hirsch (@jordanchirsch) December 27, 2013

The report, its momentum stunted by its fixture in the Friday afternoon news dump, receded from the discourse without much mention. Ostensibly, it was something meant to dangle–Kerry as Pavlov–to the spoils of peace. If you zoom out a little bit, it’s wild to consider that so many bells must be wrung on all sides to the cause of peace attractive.

Should the report about Pollard ultimately be true, it can be added to the pile of uncomfortable, unsavory things that countries might be willing to consider for the sake of peace.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.