Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will ask US President Barack Obama to commute the life sentence of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard at a critical stage of the diplomatic talks with the Palestinian Authority, Channel 2 diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal reported Monday night.
Netanyahu had tied Pollard’s release to talks with the Palestinians in the past. He reached a deal with former US president Bill Clinton to commute Pollard’s sentence in 1998 as part of the Wye River Accord, but Clinton reneged on the deal after then-CIA director George Tenet threatened to quit.
The prime minister reportedly asked the US for Pollard’s freedom six months ago when Israel committed to release 104 Palestinian terrorists as diplomatic negotiations were restarted. Netanyahu has brought up Pollard with the Americans repeatedly since then.
The Channel 2 report, which the Prime Minister’s Office would neither confirm nor deny, suggested two possible alternatives for when Netanyahu could insist on Pollard’s release when US Secretary of State John Kerry announces his framework for concluding an agreement between Israel and the PA as early as next month, or when Israel releases the final round of 26 Palestinian terrorists in April.
The cabinet’s approval of the release of the 104 terrorists was conditioned on there being another vote on whether to accept Palestinian requests to include six Arab Israeli citizens in the final round of prisoner releases.
Netanyahu could ask the Americans to free Pollard then, in order to justify the prisoner releases to Israelis.
Channel 10 quoted a White House official saying that Obama’s opinion against releasing Pollard immediately had not changed and that there was no connection between Pollard and revelations that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had spied on Israeli leaders.
But the report was downplayed in Jerusalem because the White House official quoted was not named and because Obama is vacationing in Hawaii.
Netanyahu met with Pollard’s wife Esther for 45 minutes on Monday, updating her on his efforts to bring about her husband’s release.
The meeting was described as “good and constructive” and Netanyahu was seen as showing “absolute determination” to bring Pollard to Israel.
“He should have been released long ago,” Netanyahu told the Likud faction at the Knesset. “I think this is understood by everyone here and I believe it is also increasingly understood in the United States.”
Although at Sunday’s cabinet meeting Netanyahu downplayed American spying on Israel, he told the faction that he had asked for clarification on the matter.
His national security adviser, Yossi Cohen, is expected to discuss the issue with his American counterpart Susan Rice.
“There are things that are forbidden to do, that are unacceptable,” Netanyahu said.
The Knesset will hold a special discussion on Pollard and the American spying on Israel on Wednesday.
More than 100 MKs, including ministers, signed a letter to Obama on Monday asking for Pollard’s freedom.
“We ask that you seriously consider the requests that there have been from top, current and former American officials and release Pollard on humanitarian grounds,” said the letter, which was drafted by the heads of the Pollard lobby in the Knesset, MKs Nachman Shai (Labor) and Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi).
“You have in your hands the right to grant him a final opportunity to complete his life as a free man.”
Esther Pollard praised the letter, saying that “all stops have to be pulled out now to bring Jonathan home. Every official government initiative is welcome and appreciated.”
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said he disagreed with the idea of conditioning advancing peace talks on Pollard’s freedom.
He said he believed Pollard should be released on both humanitarian and legal grounds, and the peace process must continue regardless of Pollard’s fate.
But Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) endorsed tying the Pollard issue to releases of Palestinian terrorists.
“It’s a matter of justice,” he said. “The American can’t come to us asking for more and more while Pollard remains in prison.”