Every now and then the Obama administration comes up with a truly bone-headed idea. Consider the latest: offering to free convicted American-Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as a "sweetener" to encourage Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians to continue the still deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
In floating this potential offer to rescue the peace process– which contrary to current impression is still alive, if not well -- Secretary of State John Kerry and his boss have managed the near-impossible: Not often do the editorial pages of the liberal New York Times and the conservative New York Sun, the on-line journal, agree, albeit for polar opposite reasons.
Yet both Times and Sun conclude that the Pollard gambit smacks of diplomatic desperation. And both reject this Hail-Mary-ploy to rescue a peace process whose parties seem unwilling, or unable after nine months of talks, to make the compromises required to reach a "final status" deal.
"Better Pollard should sit in prison" (as he has for 29 years of his life sentence for spying for "friendly" Israel) than be used to justify Israeli concessions against the interests of the Jewish people, the Sun declares. Releasing Pollard twenty months before he is eligible for parole, the Times opines, is a "small-bore tactical step to persuade Israel to do what it had already promised," a price "not worth paying."
Pollard as a potential "sweetener," as was initially reported by Matt Drudge and Reuters, is politically sensitive in both the U.S. and Israel.
Within America, the report has sparked bitter debate and angst, particularly within the Jewish community, where Pollard's betrayal of his country back in 1985 infuriated American Jews who were struggling to quash an often unstated, but widely held belief at the time that Jews could not be trusted with high-level policy posts affecting the Middle East given their religiously based "dual loyalty," a prejudice that kept many Jews out of senior official posts.
Within Israel, by contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been struggling to hold together his quarrelsome coalition, some of whose members remain adamantly opposed to further concessions to Palestinians who seem unwilling to make any. They cite the Pollard gambit as ostensible evidence that "Bibi" is willing to sacrifice Israeli core security to retain America's good will – or "land for Pollard," as some critics charge.
So take a politically hot-button issue in America – whether Pollard should be released as part of a package to unstick the stuck peace talks -- and an equally burning issue in Israel –whether Israel should freeze or slow construction of settlements in territories it occupies, and release even more convicted Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails. Combine them, and what do you get?
In fact, these two issues – Pollard's release – and American "incentives" in general to prompt greater flexibility by the negotiating parties should never have been linked in the first place.
Joining them advances rational discussion of neither. Nor, by itself, would it enhance the peace process's prospects, since Israelis and Palestinians appear to remain divided on the same core issues long in dispute.
One can argue, as Dennis Ross, the long-time peace negotiator, did in a blog post for Time, that Pollard should be released on humanitarian grounds. He's ill. After serving 29 years of his life sentence, he has been jailed longer than others convicted of apparently similar crimes. Since he will be eligible for parole anyway in November, 2015, why not extract some diplomatic "value" from him now?
The information he compromised in the 1980's no longer has value, so freeing him would not jeopardize American security. "Whether one accepts the argument that Pollard's sentence seems more severe than that handed out to other spies, it surely makes little sense to say that someone who has spent nearly 30 years in jail has not paid a severe price," writes Ross.
Those opposed, however, argue that Pollard sold out his country for money – and perhaps not only from Israel, as press reports indicate. Plus, the intelligence he compromised – signals and satellite information and according to some accounts, the Russian sites that the U.S. was targeting with nuclear weapons, severely damaged American security, as then Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger wrote to the court back in the 1980's in a still classified damage assessment which he was legally required to submit.
Some say that the intelligence also endangered American agents in the field and may have even gotten some killed.
Another critic, Aaron David Miller, also a veteran peace negotiator, raises a more practical objection: Releasing Pollard in exchange for keeping the talks going beyond the current April 29th deadline would be freeing him for "peanuts." He writes, "If this is the price the administration is prepared to pay for a continuation of the talks, what will it cost to do the final deal?"
Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt, calls it "wrongheaded" for the U.S. to be asked to pay any price, "let alone this price" just to continue the talks.
Kerry, he writes in The American Interest, "should not be tempted to demean American diplomacy and tarnish his hard work by throwing a convicted spy into a half-baked deal only to buy time for a peace process that appears to be floundering anyway."
America cannot want Israeli-Palestinian peace more than the warring parties.