US set to release Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard to extend peace talks
Palestinian president calls off talks with John Kerry over prisoners issue
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a meeting with Palestinian leadership in the West Bank City of Ramallah. Mr Abbas also signed a document facilitating membership requests for Palestine in some 15 international bodies within the United Nations. Photograph: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters
Jonathan Pollard, who was jailed for life by the Americans in 1987 after being found guilty of spying for Israel, is set to be released as part of a package to extend Middle East peace talks.
US secretary of state John Kerry was due to hold talks in Ramallah today with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to finalise the deal, but last night Palestinian officials reported that Mr Abbas had cancelled the meeting due to anger over Israel’s delay in releasing Palestinian prisoners.
Mr Abbas, in a move bound to cause anger in Israel, also signed a document facilitating membership requests for Palestine in some 15 international bodies within the United Nations.
If Mr Kerry, who met with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday and on Monday night, can convince the Palestinians to accept the package, the Israeli cabinet will convene to vote on the deal.
Mr Pollard, who was arrested in 1985, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the US navy when he gave classified documents to Israeli handlers.
The fact that Mr Pollard, who was granted Israeli citizenship while in jail, will be set free after serving 29 years in captivity should be enough for Mr Netanyahu to secure cabinet backing, although there remains significant opposition from right-wing ministers due to the significant concessions required from Israel in order to keep the Palestinians at the negotiating table.
Israel will commit to carrying out the fourth and final release of Palestinian prisoners agreed to when the peace talks were re-launched last July under American mediation.
The release of 26 veteran detainees was scheduled to take place on Saturday but Israel put the move on hold until it received assurances that the Palestinians intended to continue with the peace talks after the end of this month’s nine-month deadline.
Israel will also be required to release another 400 Palestinian prisoners who were not convicted of murder and institute a partial construction freeze outside the main West Bank settlement blocs.
In return, the Palestinians will agree to continue peace negotiations until 2015 and to refrain from seeking membership of international bodies.
If the deal is approved, Pollard is expected to arrive in Israel in time for the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins on April 14th.
Mr Netanyahu raised the issue of Pollard numerous times with US officials, including during his most recent meeting with president Barack Obama in Washington last month. Until now, the US has refused to discuss his release, but a number of factors may have persuaded president Obama that the time was right.
Yair Shamir, a minister from the far-right Jewish Home party, said issues that don’t go together were being mixed up.