Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Trade a spy, get Middle East peace?

By Frida Ghitis
April 1, 2014 -- Updated 2037 GMT (0437 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. may release the spy Jonathan Pollard as a chip in Middle East negotiations
  • Frida Ghitis: The move could give Benjamin Netanyahu political leverage in Israel
  • She says if a deal is reached, Israeli-Palestinian talks can continue through 2015
  • Ghitis: Pollard has nothing to do with peace process, but his release makes sense

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians are about to run out of oxygen. The final weeks of a nine-month negotiating window closes at the end of April and the two sides still stand far apart. The talks could end in a matter of days with disturbing consequences.

What to do?

Secretary of State John Kerry has an idea: How about releasing Jonathan Pollard, the convicted American spy who has already spent almost three decades in prison for passing information to Israel?

According to a number of reports, a deal to free Pollard and extend talks through 2015 is in the works.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Pollard has nothing to do with the two-state solution, with the future status of Jerusalem, with whether or not Palestinians will ever recognize Israel as a Jewish state, with West Bank settlements, or with any of the issues in dispute.

But releasing him could give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu some political cover to make unpopular decisions.

Over the years, a growing number of Israelis -- along with many prominent U.S. officials -- have come to see the severity of the sentence imposed on the former civilian intelligence analyst as a gross injustice.

A major turning point in perception of the case came when a former U.S. assistant secretary of Defense made an explosive accusation about why Pollard is serving a life sentence. Lawrence Korb, who worked in the Department of Defense when Pollard's crime came to light, wrote a letter to President Barack Obama urging Pollard's release. "I can say with confidence," he told the President, "that the severity of Pollard's sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel ... on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger."

As the 59-year-old Pollard languishes in prison and his health reportedly deteriorates, his plight has gained enormous emotional power, turning him into a valuable negotiating chip.

Not everyone in Israel agrees that he should be released. And many American Jews are also deeply uncomfortable with the prominent place that Pollard has assumed in relations between the U.S. and Israel. After all, Pollard did commit a crime.

Still, his spying, as a recently declassified CIA damage assessment showed, aimed to collect information not about the U.S., but about weapons systems in the hands of Arab states, Pakistan and the U.S.S.R.

If Pollard were released after 29 years in prison for a crime that did not harm America -- in fact, it harmed Israel and its relations with Washington -- no one would argue he was not punished for his crime.

Releasing pollard would constitute a low-cost effort to keep the peace talks alive and give Netanyahu enough room to make politically unpopular decisions at home.

Kerry, whose plate is overflowing with other crises, has invested an astonishing amount of time to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, with no sign of a loss of enthusiasm or erosion of earnestness. His original goal, a peace deal before the end of this month, will not occur. Still, he would like to extend the talks.

The Palestinians say they will walk out of the talks and refuse to extend them unless Israel frees 26 more jailed Palestinians, a fourth round of releases, which have included men convicted of murdering Israelis. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had agreed to the releases as part of the current talks, says he will not free any more unless the Palestinians promise not to walk away from peace negotiations.

The talks are in the middle of a thick logjam. And, if that were not depressing enough, the logjam is just about whether or not to continue talking. The sad reality is that there is no sign that any tangible progress has been made on the core issues.

During the recent meeting of the Arab League, Arab leaders disagreed about practically everything, but they came together in their rejection of accepting Israel as a Jewish state.

Palestinians doubt that Israelis ever intend to relinquish any territory in the West Bank for a Palestinian state, and Israelis doubt that Palestinians are genuinely willing to accept Israel's existence as the state of the Jewish people. Each side is deeply skeptical of the other's true intentions, even as majorities of both Palestinians and Israelis say they support a negotiated agreement leading to a peace agreement and a two-state solution.

If there is any good news, it is that throughout all the failures of peace-making, the popular desire for a negotiated solution has survived. Despite the high obstacles, the peacemakers know that without negotiations, lasting peace cannot come. And that's where Pollard comes in.

The scraggly man who has spent decades in a prison could become the instrument of yet another round of negotiations, allowing Israel to free more Palestinians. That might just be the worst punishment for him. Pollard is reported to be adamantly opposed to what he calls a "shameful deal."

Every release of prisoners is a triumph for Abbas and a wound for Netanyahu. Israelis cringe when they see the celebrations greeting Palestinian men who have spilled Israeli blood. They seethe at articles in the foreign media that speak of how Israelis "demonize" Palestinians convicted of murdering Israelis, and they feel betrayed knowing those same men have received salaries from the Palestinian Authority while serving their sentences in Israeli prisons.

The pressure from the Israeli hardliners is building on Netanyahu. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Dannon said Palestinians are tricking Israel, with no intention of ever making peace with Israel, just so they can free more prisoners. Dannon says he will resign if a fourth round of releases goes through. Palestinians accuse Netanyahu of reneging on a deal.

Amid charges and recriminations from both sides, Kerry just made another rushed trip to the region, seeking to salvage what has increasingly come to be seen as his peace process.

The idea of freeing Pollard has come up several times before, at times of crisis in the process. Each time the plan has fallen apart. Pollard remains in prison and peace between Israelis and Palestinians remains barely a dream. But, as stubborn optimists know, things stay the same until they change.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0017 GMT (0817 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT