US Secretary of State John Kerry is closer to a deal that would rescue the faltering Middle East peace talks, pushing a formula that would include the release of convicted US spy Jonathan Pollard and freedom for hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel, an official close to the negotiations said yesterday.
The deal would not include a freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank as the Palestinians have demanded but would envisage Israel committing to show "great restraint" and not issue new housing tenders.
The remarks were the first sign of a breakthrough after weeks of arduous US efforts meant to keep the negotiations afloat past a late-April deadline. The talks were on the verge of collapse after a planned Palestinian prisoner release did not take place as scheduled last week.
In a sign of the urgency, Kerry flew unexpectedly to Israel from Europe on Monday, where he met Israeli and Palestinian officials in a bid to salvage the negotiations. Pollard's release was discussed as part of a deal that would extend the talks. After a stop in Brussels, the State Department said Kerry would return to the region today for further talks with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians gave the emerging proposal a cool reception, saying it fell far short of their demands for a complete halt to settlement construction and the freedom for 1,000 prisoners of their choosing.
The inclusion of Pollard, a former United States naval intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel, is the most surprising element of the deal and reflects the importance - and desperation - that Kerry has put on continuing the talks.
"According to the emerging deal, Pollard would be released before the Passover holiday," said the official. Passover begins on April 14.
For years, US officials have vehemently opposed any talk of releasing Pollard early. He is serving a life sentence at a federal prison in North Carolina but eligible for parole in November 2015. He was arrested in 1985, and convicted of espionage for giving reams of classified documents to his Israeli handlers.
Pollard's case has become a rallying cry in Israel, where leaders say his lengthy prison sentence amounts to excessive punishment when compared to other US espionage cases. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once visited Pollard in prison when he was out of politics, and other Israeli leaders have routinely pressed President Barack Obama and other US presidents for his pardon or release.
As recently as last week, US officials were outspoken in ruling out an early release of Pollard. But on Monday, they appeared to soften their line. "He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence. I don't have any updates on his situation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, a lawyer for Pollard, said he remained in poor health.
Securing Pollard's release would help Netanyahu sell a package that would include more releases of Palestinian prisoners - something that would otherwise be unpopular with his hard-line Cabinet.
A number of senior officials have already come out against further releases, and Netanyahu's coalition is dominated by lawmakers sympathetic to the West Bank settler movement.
Israel and the Palestinians launched talks last July, agreeing to nine months of negotiations with the goal of reaching a final peace deal. After that became unrealistic, Kerry scaled back his plans and said he would try to present a "framework" deal by the end of April, with the goal of extending talks through the end of the year to hammer out details of a final agreement.