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Would You Release a Convicted Spy to Secure Middle East Peace?

Would You Release a Convicted Spy to Secure Middle East Peace?

I would, but I am not persuaded that is the question confronting the Obama administration. I think the real question it faces is: Would you release a convicted spy to get an extension on an arbitrary deadline on interim talks that show little prospect of succeeding, but show even less prospect if you don’t release the spy?

Reports indicate that the Obama administration is seriously considering releasing Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. Navy Department analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel back in the 1980s. The Israeli government has lobbied every president since, begging that they release Pollard. Every president, including presidents who were criticized for being too friendly with Israel, resisted those lobbying efforts and so Pollard has remained languishing in jail. The matter was brought up almost ritualistically in leader-to-leader encounters for years with little prospect of success. And now the rumors coming out of Washington suggest that a U.S. president has never been as close to releasing Pollard as President Barack Obama is right now.

Even stipulating Pollard’s guilt, the case for releasing him is not absurd. He has served a long time and, though serving a life sentence, would be eligible for consideration under normal parole conditions in a few years. It seems far less of a concession today than it seemed in the mid-1990s, when CIA Director George Tenet reportedly threatened to resign if President Bill Clinton released Pollard. Moreover, Israel has repeatedly been asked to give up prisoners convicted of heinous crimes on behalf of the peace process — indeed, one reason for considering the Pollard case now is that Israel is balking at releasing yet another tranche of prisoners, given how painful the last tranche had been. If Israel can be expected to give up convicted murderers, is it unreasonable to ask the United States to give up a convicted traitor?

No, not if doing so seals a final deal. I can imagine a hypothetical situation in which the long-sought final agreement — one that resolves the so-called "right of return," the status of Jerusalem, the disposition of the Jordan Valley, the management of the Gaza Strip, and so on — is within reach and all that is required is that Israel concede one more inch on some matter. To buy that inch, we might have to release Pollard and, even though that would mean releasing a convicted traitor, in that hypothetical scenario, I think most people would say the price was worth it.

That does not appear to be the case here. Are there credible indications that the two sides have moved substantially closer on the core issues which divide them? Does the Palestinian Authority look ready to make the painful sacrifices they would have to make to secure peace with Israel? Do things look any more promising on the Israeli side?

There is a real risk that the Obama administration will play a valuable one-time chit and buy very little for it — perhaps a few months extension, but nothing more. The Palestinian side could well demand an equivalent concession and, having already sunk the costs so deeply in a quixotic attempt at forced-pace negotiations, how could the administration resist further concessions?

The risks for Israel may also be larger than they appear in this deal. While Israel views this case as a matter of justice, the American side would likely view this as a huge concession, one that warrants an equally large response from Israel. Even if Israel is unable to find or make the package of concessions that yields a final peace treaty, the Obama administration will expect something pretty big from Israel in return. Every subsequent Israeli action will be framed, "How could they do ‘X’ after we released Pollard?" The outrage in the Obama Administration if, say, Israel subsequently announced a new round of building on territory in dispute in the peace negotiations, would be significant, and could throw U.S.-Israeli relations back to the dark days of 2009.

I understand why Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly thinks this is a gamble worth taking. He has invested a considerable amount of personal energy and prestige in these negotiations and he doggedly pursued them when most experts thought they had little chance of succeeding. He is clearly invested in seeing them continue, and he has probably convinced himself that this is his own last chance at a deal. He may even be right about this being his last chance.

But I am not yet convinced that this is America’s best chance at a deal, and so I am hesitant to play a card that previous administrations protected so carefully for so long.