Bennett 'skeptical' of Pollard release in deal for prolonged peace talks

Economy minister urges Israeli government to "stop begging" Palestinians to continue diplomatic process.

Israeli protesters demand Pollard's release in 2005. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israeli protesters demand Pollard's release in 2005.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett expressed skepticism Wednesday over a report that the United States has offered to release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of a deal seeking to prolong Israeli-Palestinian peace talks past their initial April deadline.
The Bayit Yehudi leader told Army Radio that he had not received confirmation from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu concerning Pollard's release as part of an agreement that would also see Israel release 14 Arab-Israelis in a fourth release of Palestinian prisoners.
"It's not certain to happen, and in any case, we need to stop begging [Abbas] to agree to conduct negotiations with us," Bennett said.
"I'm very skeptical. I didn't see the United States reach its hand into its pocket on the Pollard issue and I haven't heard [about this] from the prime minister. I don't assume that it will really happen," he added.
Earlier Wednesday, Army Radio cited diplomatic sources in Jerusalem as saying the United State has agreed to release Pollard as part of a negotiated compromise to secure the continuation of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
According to the report, Israel would release another 26 Palestinian prisoners, including some 14 Arab-Israelis, in exchange of the US gesture.
The deal would also obligate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to keep his negotiators engaged in the current round of talks and an extended period through the end of 2014.
On Sunday, senior Israeli officials told Israel Radio that the peace process is in danger of collapsing. If no agreement is reached between the sides regarding the fourth installment of the prisoner release, which was originally scheduled to take place Saturday night, the negotiations could break down completely.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his team put forth the proposal in an effort to salvage the talks after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made it clear to the top US diplomat that he would not release the Palestinian inmates at all if the talks culminate at the end of April, as set as an initial nine-month deadline.
The government has remained adamant in refusing to free Palestinian citizens of Israel in the prisoner releases.
The Palestinians have said they would leave the negotiating table if the Israeli Arab prisoners are not released. However, there is currently no majority in the Israeli cabinet to release them.
By releasing Pollard from his nearly 30-year incarceration, the US hopes to gain approval from Netanyahu's splintered coalition for measures to proceed with the negotiating process.
Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon has threatened to resign and to oust Netanyahu as Likud leader if the release, set for Saturday night, takes place.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.