Nazareth, Israel - Reports that Washington was offering to free Israel's most notorious spy, Jonathan Pollard, as part of an unorthodox prisoner exchange has provoked feverish excitement in Israel.
US security officials have always objected to releasing Pollard early, after he was jailed 29 years ago for passing thousands of classified documents to Israel while serving in US naval intelligence. Pollard is eligible for a parole hearing next year.
The move appeared to be the sweetener in a last-ditch effort by US President Barack Obama's administration to prevent the demise of current peace talks on April 29. Washington wants to persuade Israel and the Palestinian leadership to extend the negotiations timetable till at least the end of the year.
Neve Gordon, an Israeli political scientist at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva, said the Israeli right had turned Pollard into a "powerful symbol".
"The right asks: How can we leave Pollard rotting in prison - and not just any prison, a US prison? Most Israelis feel Pollard has been in jail too long and suffered too much. It feels like a horrendous act of vindictiveness by the US."
This deal has been put together not to advance a two-state solution but to buy time, to keep a 'non-process' rolling a few months more so that the Obama administration can get past the elections.
Pollard, an American Jew, was given Israeli citizenship in 1995 and his role as a spy officially was confirmed by Israel three years later. Requests for clemency have been rejected by previous US administrations.
The Obama administration was said to be considering freeing Pollard in return for Israel's agreement to carry out a promised release of 26 Palestinian prisoners due last weekend.
After Israel failed to deliver, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas applied to the United Nations this week to become a signatory of 15 international conventions, apparently reviving the Palestinian Authority's efforts to win international recognition of Palestinian statehood.
The US deal, it is reported, would also require Israel to release hundreds more Palestinian prisoners and implement a temporary freeze on settlement building.
The possibility of Pollard being used as a bargaining chip has upset many commentators. A New York Times editorial called the move "lamentable", while The Washington Post wondered why the US was the one "offering its own concessions" to keep the two sides talking.
Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and former adviser to Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister during the Camp David peace talks in 2000, said Obama's chief concern was keeping the negotiations going.
"This deal has been put together not to advance a two-state solution but to buy time, to keep a 'non-process' rolling a few months more so that the Obama administration can get past the elections."
Although the reports that Pollard might soon be handed over were welcomed in Israel, analysts warned there was a danger it could rub salt into a still-festering wound. Writing in Haaretz newspaper, Anshel Pfeffer noted: "A national carnival around the liberated spy will cause new damage to the relationship with Washington."
Alpher concurred, saying the right had turned Pollard into a "martyr". "They have presented him as a persecuted Jew, suggesting that it is Israel's duty to save him."
Pollard appealed unsuccessfully to the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005 to have himself recognised as a "prisoner of Zion", a title that more usually refers to Jews who were imprisoned by the Soviet Union to prevent them from emigrating to Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been closely identified with the campaign to win Pollard's release. Although recent Israeli prime ministers have quietly lobbied Washington on Pollard's behalf, Netanyahu became the first to risk incurring the White House's ire by making a public call for clemency in early 2011.
He also raised the matter with the White House in 2010 during an earlier round of peace talks, proposing a continuation of a partial settlement freeze in return for Pollard's release. On that occasion, talks broke down.
In a sign of the consensus over Pollard, 106 of the 120 legislators in Israel's parliament signed an appeal to Obama last December urging him to release the spy as a "humanitarian gesture". Those not signing were mostly Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset.
|An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past posters calling for President Obama to free Jonathan Pollard [Reuters]
At that time, Israel's Channel 10 TV station quoted an unnamed White House source saying Obama's view was that "Pollard committed a very serious crime, and he has no intention of releasing him".
During Pollard's plea bargain before he was sentenced in 1987, it emerged that he had been paid at least $50,000 by Israeli handlers for information. Pollard told the court he had passed on "360 cubic feet" of documents over a 17-month period, reportedly to South Africa and Pakistan as well as Israel.
The information is believed to have included the location of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's headquarters in Tunisia, which Israel bombed in 1985, killing 35 people, and reports on Soviet arms shipments to Arab states. He is also reported to have revealed details of how the US operated its intelligence-gathering satellites.
According to US media reports, some of the classified documents may have found their way to the Soviet Union, probably in exchange for the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel.
Netanyahu's support for Pollard had won popular backing, said Alpher, because most Israelis felt a strong obligation to Pollard, even if it meant antagonising the US. "It's deep in the Israeli culture not to leave behind someone who is wounded or captive, whatever the circumstances."
But the right, he added, had gone further, creating the impression that he is "being held in unreasonable conditions, that he is being singled out by the US". There was, he added, an implication that the American treatment of Pollard was driven by "anti-semitism".
That served the right's cause, he said, justifying their refusal to make territorial and political concessions in peace talks.
Pfeffer noted that while in prison, Pollard had adopted the hardline positions of the Israeli extreme right. His thinking, Pfeffer said, had been affected by what he called a stream of visits by "far-right Israeli politicians and settler rabbis".
In 2009, Pollard was reported to have opposed a prisoner deal to free Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for five years by Hamas. He suggested Israel instead made a list of Hamas prisoners in its jails so that it could "kill one of them every day until they release Gilad".
The Pollard campaign has been bolstered among the Israeli public by the publication late last year of documents, originally leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, that the US had spied on its closest allies, including Israel. Israelis sensed a double standard from Washington, said Neve Gordon.
The right asks: How can we leave Pollard rotting in prison – and not just any prison, a US prison? Most Israelis feel Pollard has been in jail too long and suffered too much. It feels like a horrendous act of vindictiveness by the US.
Gordon added that Netanyahu would benefit from Pollard's release. "Pollard has come to represent for Israelis a sense of our own powerlessness, even with our friend the US. If Netanyahu manages to get him freed, it will strengthen his political position."
The biggest carrot that might keep the Palestinians at the talks, meanwhile, would be a promise from Israel to release the Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who is widely seen as Abbas' heir apparent.
Last week's cancelled prisoner release was always likely to be contentious for Israel, because it included 14 members of Israel's large Palestinian minority.
Alpher said the arrangement put a question mark over who the 14 prisoners owed their allegiance to - Israel or Abbas? "That plays straight into the hands of people like [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, who says Israeli Arabs are not loyal and cannot be trusted."
Addameer, a Palestinian prisoners' rights organisation based in Ramallah, warned it was difficult to trust Israel in such deals.
It noted that, as part of a 2011 prisoner exchange for Shalit, Israel agreed to release a first batch of 477 Palestinians in October that year. Over the next two months, the organisation documented some 470 new arrests across the West Bank.
Gavan Kelly, a spokesman for Addameer, said: "Israel gives with one hand and takes with the other. On this occasion too, Israel can agree to free Palestinians and then make more arrests or re-arrest those it releases."
According to Addameer, 5,000 political prisoners are in Israeli jails, including more than 130 who have never been charged.