JERUSALEM – The United States is talking with Israel about releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard early from his life sentence as an incentive to the Israelis in the troubled Mideast peace negotiations, people familiar with the talks said Monday.
Releasing Pollard, a thorn in U.S.-Israeli relations for three decades, would be an extraordinary step underscoring the urgency of U.S. peace efforts.
In return for the release, the people close to the talks said, Israel would have to undertake significant concessions to the Palestinians in Middle East negotiations.
Such concessions could include some kind of freeze on Israeli settlements in disputed territory, the release of Palestinian prisoners beyond those Israel has already agreed to free, and a guarantee that Israel would stay at the negotiating table beyond the end of April.
Two people describing the talks cautioned that such a release was far from certain. Both spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks on the record.
Secretary of State John Kerry met for several hours late Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before sitting down with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and another Palestinian official.
Pollard, an American Jew, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy when he gave thousands of classified documents to his Israeli handlers. The Israelis recruited him to pass along U.S. secrets, including satellite photos and data on Soviet weaponry in the 1980s.
He was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to Israel and received a life sentence.
Apart from any negotiations in the meantime, Pollard could be released from prison Nov. 21, 2015 – 30 years after his arrest. He has been serving his sentence at a federal facility in Butner, N.C.
Pollard is said to be in poor health. His case has become a rallying cry in Israel, where leaders say his nearly three decades in U.S. prison amounts to excessive punishment. Pollard enjoys widespread sympathy among Israelis, and Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have routinely pressed Obama and other U.S. presidents for his pardon or release.
Stiff opposition from the American military and intelligence community has deterred the White House. Intelligence officials have argued that his release would harm national security and that the U.S. must maintain a strong deterrent to allies by warning them of the consequences of spying on American soil.