[Published 25 October 2011]
Two significant - yet seemingly unrelated - events have occurred during the past week within the ongoing Jewish-Arab conflict:
1. Israel’s release of 1027 terrorists for one of its soldiers - Gilad Shalit - with 80% of Israelis reportedly supporting the deal.
2. The PLO’s continuing refusal to resume negotiations with Israel until Israel ceases all building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem - despite strenuous efforts by the Quartet to get PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table.
The confluence of these two events however now presents an opportunity for the Quartet to get Israel and the PLO talking to each other again.
The Quartet represents probably the strongest diplomatic negotiating team ever assembled in history. Yet it has been made to look impotent in its inability to get the conflicting parties to sit across a table to try and peacefully resolve their differences.
Comprised of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations - the Quartet is obviously concerned at the fallout that can occur should Abbas continue to unilaterally forge ahead with his request for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 242, the Oslo Accords and the Bush Road Map.
Yet the Quartet has within its grasp a powerful negotiating card - the ability to pressure America to release and repatriate to Israel the convicted civilian American Naval Intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard in return for:
1. Israel implementing a total building freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for an agreed specified time period and
2. The PLO immediately resuming direct negotiations with Israel
Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment almost 27 years ago for disclosing vital security information to Israel - which Israel was legally entitled to receive anyway according to a 1983 Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries.
The information withheld from Israel included Syrian,Iraqi,Libyan and Iranian nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare capabilities - being developed for use against Israel. It also included information on ballistic missile development by these countries and information on planned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets.
Pollard never had a trial. At the request of both the U.S. and Israeli governments, he entered into a plea agreement fully so-operating with the prosecution, which spared both governments a long, difficult, expensive and potentially embarrassing trial.
Yet he received a life sentence and a recommendation that he never be paroled -in complete violation of the plea agreement he had reached with the government - which promised a far less severe sentence.
Pollard was indicted on only one charge - passing classified information to an ally without intent to harm the United States.
No one else in the history of the United States has ever received a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally - only Pollard. The median sentence for this offence is two to four years. Even agents who have committed far more serious offences on behalf of hostile nations have not received such a harsh sentence.
In November 1995, Israel granted Pollard Israeli citizenship.
On May 12, 1998, the Government of Israel publicly acknowledged Pollard as an Israeli agent and indicated its commitment to securing his release and repatriation to Israel.
It was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who, in 1995, first began openly to negotiate for Pollard’s release as part of the peace process.
President Clinton promised Prime Minister Rabin that he would release Pollard as part of a Middle East peace settlement, but the President refused to honor his promise after Rabin was assassinated.
The opportunity presented itself when Israel’s current Prime Minister - Benjamin Netanyahu - went to the Wye River Plantation talks in 1998 with Yasser Arafat - thinking that he would return to Israel with Jonathan Pollard in return for the concessions Israel made at those talks. President Clinton strenuously denied there was any such agreement.
Pollard is now in poor health. Surely he has paid a high enough price for his transgressions. The circumstances leading to his life sentence following the intervention of Secretary of Defence - Caspar Weinberger - remain unexplained.
If the Quartet wants to see Israel and the PLO resume direct negotiations then a decision to release Pollard as part of a deal to bring this about would undoubtedly be received in Israel with the same overwhelming support that greeted the news of Shalit’s release.
A similar proposal was floated by Israel twelve months ago but fell on deaf American ears. The political situation has deteriorated since then and the future appears bleak for both Arabs and Jews - indeed for world security - if negotiations are not resumed..
On the 20th February this year Gilad Shalit’s father made the following plea to President Obama on the occasion of Gilad’s 1,700th day in Hamas captivity in Gaza:
“[Pollard] has served his sentence, and the time has come to free him.”
One week previously a letter from 19 former Soviet Prisoners of Zion was sent to President Obama asking him to grant Pollard clemency - which stated:
“Your silence worries us We, former Prisoners of Zion in Soviet Russia, know the danger of silence. We know the terrible suffering that comes with each passing day in prison. Therefore, we appeal to you with a heartfelt cry - end this Jewish prisoner’s prolonged and terrible ordeal! You are the only one who can do so. Please, Mr. President, free Pollard now!”
Prominent Americans who have recently called for Pollard’s release include former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle, former CIA Director James Woolsey and former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz.
However any such decision will be difficult for President Obama to make following Vice President Joe Biden’s recently reported remarks:
“President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time. If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”
Well it is not up to Vice President Biden - it is a decision which only President Obama can make.
The decision to release Pollard in the interests of pursuing peace stands in stark distinction to Netanyahu’s extremely difficult decision to release 1027 terrorists - a decision which almost certainly will cause a further threat to peace - judging by the reported comments of some of those released.
Pursuing peace - not perpetuating petulance or political posturing - should be President Obama’s catch cry at this very critical point of time.