Pollard, settlements, prisoners in mix to save peace talks

A new fissure in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks does not mean negotiations are dead, according to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who in a surprise move this week signed applications for state-level membership in 15 international agencies and conventions. The move was in response to Israel’s failure to release a fourth and final batch of Palestinian prisoners as promised.

Options being floated to resolve the crisis include freeing Jonathan Pollard, a partial settlement freeze, guarantees that Palestinians won’t push for international recognition and a mass prisoner release.

Israelis call for the release of Jonathan Pollard during President Obama’s visit to Jerusalem in March 2013. photo/jta-getty images-uriel sinai

Officials close to the talks confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had discussed a formula that would extend the talks, now on the verge of collapse, into 2015.

Among elements discussed were:

The release of Pollard, the American spy for Israel sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987, by Passover, which starts April 14.

A freeze on new housing starts in West Bank settlements, though not to include Jerusalem, infrastructure or existing projects.

The release of 26 Palestinian terrorists who were to have been freed on March 29, as well as another 400 Palestinian prisoners. Israel would have final say on which would be released as part of the 400, none of whom were involved in any killings. Israel has already released 78 prisoners connected to fatal terrorist attacks, but Israeli Cabinet ministers said they want Abbas to commit to another nine months of talks before releasing the final group.

A commitment by the Palestinians to stay at the negotiating table until 2015, under conditions that include abiding by a pledge not to seek statehood recognition.

Kerry, in Brussels on April 1 to discuss the Ukraine crisis with European allies, following recent meetings in Israel with Netanyahu, would not confirm details in comments to reporters. But he said he had assurances from the Israeli and Palestinian leaders that the talks would continue at least until April 29, the deadline Kerry set last July when he reconvened them.

“Both parties say they want to try and find a way forward,” Kerry said. “We will do everything in our power. President Obama is as committed to this as anybody. Facilitation is only as good as the willingness of leaders to actually make decisions when they’re in front of them.”

The secretary of state’s planned return to Ramallah on April 2 to continue discussions was canceled after Abbas signed the membership applications. Kerry said that Abbas’ applications did not technically violate the agreement because he was not applying to United Nations agencies. Israel had insisted as a precondition for reconvening the peace talks last year that Abbas suspend such bids.

Among the agencies and conventions Abbas selected were the Geneva conventions for treatment of combatants and civilians in war; the Vienna convention, which could refer to a number of treaties governing relations between nations; and agencies “dealing with women’s and children’s rights.”

An official told the New York Times that the Palestinians did not apply for membership in two international courts, the move Israel fears most because it could facilitate war crimes prosecutions against Israelis.

Lawmakers in Congress on April 2 pressed Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, to make clear that applying to join the conventions was counterproductive.

“The administration must send a clear message to the Palestinians that the only path to statehood is through a negotiated agreement with Israel, not through unilateral attempts at the U.N.,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) said to Power at a hearing of the Appropriations Committee’s Foreign Operations subcommittee that she chairs, according to a Reuters report.

Granger’s Democratic counterpart, ranking member Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), agreed. “It is counterproductive and doesn’t move them closer to any final resolution,” she said.

The release of Pollard as part of a peace deal has been an Israeli demand since Netanyahu raised it in his first stint as prime minister during the 1998 U.S.-Israel-Palestinian talks that produced the Wye River agreement.

According to officials involved in the original investigation of Pollard, he may be released in any case next year under laws in place at the time of his 1985 arrest that required the paroled release of those serving life sentences after 30 years. Advocates for Pollard insist this is not the case.

Pollard has been eligible for parole for 19 years but has not applied; the Associated Press reported that Pollard had waived a planned parole hearing that was to have taken place April 1.

The report, quoting officials at the federal prison in Butner, N.C., where Pollard is being held, did not explain why he agreed to go ahead with the hearing, why he then waived it and whether it was connected to the peace process.

A number of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have in recent years said that Pollard, 59, should be granted clemency on humanitarian grounds.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief