In Aesop’s Fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the shepherd announced the arrival of a predator so many times that his warning was not believed when the wolf actually came.
In Israel, there have been so many reports that agent Jonathan Pollard is about to be released that headlines suggesting that his freedom could be imminent go in one ear and out the other.
Citing Western diplomatic sources, Israel Radio’s diplomatic analyst Chico Menashe reported Sunday morning that Obama administration officials have not ruled out a proposal from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Pollard be released as an American gesture to help the cabinet pass a proposal to free 14 Israeli Arabs convicted of terrorist acts.
The report did not say that the Americans have endorsed the idea or even that they were considering it, just that they were not ruling it out. Consequently, when ministers were asked if they would reconsider their opposition to releasing Israeli-Arab terrorists if Pollard was part of the deal, some said they would only respond when the question was not hypothetical.
That skepticism is well-founded.
The ministers have heard those cries of wolf before, going back to the 1998 Wye River summit, when Netanyahu insisted on Pollard’s freedom in exchange for his agreement to withdraw from 13 percent of the West Bank but came home without him.
But there are reasons why this time such a report should be taken more seriously. First of all, Netanyahu himself said in a rare interview with the Hebrew press that he raised Pollard’s fate with US President Barack Obama at the White House on March 3.
They also discussed how to keep peace talks alive. It is logical that Netanyahu would remind Obama that there is no issue of greater consensus in Israel than the need for Pollard to be freed.
The Palestinians will leave the negotiating table if the Israeli-Arab prisoners are not released. There is no majority in the cabinet to release them.
Releasing Pollard could be the only way to keep the peace talks alive.
Right now, Likud ministers Gilad Erdan and Israel Katz oppose the prisoner release and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman intends to bar his party’s five cabinet members from voting for it. But no Israeli politician would vote to prevent Pollard’s release.
Liberman holds the key, because his two ministers who voted for the prior prisoner releases and now will vote against the fourth round are enough to sway the vote back.
Liberman has not been the most outspoken Israeli politician on Pollard.
But he knows how to be populist when it suits him, and enabling Pollard’s release would certainly impress his constituency of Russian immigrants.
It would also help out Liberman’s new friend, US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The current fight between Israel and the Palestinians over releasing Israeli Arabs is the result of a Kerry blunder. He promised the Palestinians that he could persuade the Israeli government to release Israeli Arabs. It was an empty promise Israel does not feel obligated to honor.
The Americans have not released Pollard despite many compelling arguments. The importance of the US-Israel relationship, his failing health, calls by top current and former Israeli and American officials, and the injustice of his life sentence have not moved US presidents to grant clemency.
But to cover up Kerry’s mistake and keep the peace process alive? Maybe those reasons would be enough.
There is one more reason that is a bit more cynical. If there is a prisoner release of Israeli Arabs that passes in the cabinet, Netanyahu’s nemesis, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, said he will quit. Pollard or no Pollard, Danon would have to honor that promise.
The prospect of Danon’s departure could persuade Netanyahu to push the Americans more than he ever has before.
And then perhaps, the proverbial wolf will really arrive, and so will Jonathan Pollard.