United States Secretary of State John Kerry is set to return to the Middle East for his 10th trip since March 2013 in attempt to advance the Israeli Palestinians peace talks after a freak snowstorm cut short his trip to the region in the middle of December. Kerry will meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry visit comes as Israel found out the U.S. has been spying on their leader's emails including Netanyahu, prompting a renewed call for the U.S. to release Jonathan Pollard who is serving a life sentence for spying on the U.S. for Israel. Israel is also set to release just days before Kerry's visit the third group of Palestinian prisoners as a pre-condition of resuming the peace talks. Kerry has an uphill battle as the peace talks have not advanced with many issues that seem insurmountable; the U.S. intends to present an agreement framework by the end of January.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki announced in a statement on Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 that Kerry would be returning to the Middle East on Jan. 1, 2014 to meet with leaders in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Psaki announced; "On January 1, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Jerusalem to meet with Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu, and to Ramallah to meet with President (Mahmud) Abbas. In these meetings, he will discuss the ongoing final status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, among other issues."
Israel's Channel 10 News reported on Friday evening, Dec. 27 that Kerry "intends to offer" Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu to secure Jonathan Pollard's release in exchange for the fourth batch of Palestinians prisoners to include six Israeli Arabs, that Israel has been the most reluctant to release. Israel Radio however, stated that Kerry only "promised" to look further about Pollard's release. The U.S. might also use Pollard as a bargaining tool for their proposed framework.
On Sunday, Dec. 29, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro denied the media reports telling Army Radio; "I suggest we don’t believe every media report. There’s no direct link between Pollard and the [peace] negotiations or the prisoner release. These are different issues."
The chances however, that the U.S. would release Pollard are extremely low considering on Monday, Dec. 23 a White House Official stated that President Obama "stands behind the things he said before he visited Israel [in March]. Pollard committed a very serious crime, and [Obama] has no intention of releasing him."
On Monday, Dec. 30 Israel plans to release the third batch of Palestinian prisoners that are part of the terms for the peace talks. In total 104 Palestinians pre-Oslo Accords prisoners have to be released as part of the agreement, including Israeli Arabs, at this point 52 prisoners have already been released.
With the violence that erupted last Sunday, Dec. 22, it was questionable as to whether the prisoner release would go ahead as planned. Last Sunday in Bet Yam near Tel Aviv there was a bus bombing, with the passengers barely escaping before it detonated, and then a police officer was wounded in the West Bank adding to the tensions.
Along the Israel-Gaza border renewed conflict started after Hamas fired rockets from the Gaza strip into Israel hitting near a school bus stop in Ashkelon on Monday, Dec. 23, and a "Defense Ministry civilian worker" was killed by a Palestinian sniper on Tuesday, Dec. 24. Since then Israel has retaliated with Israel Air Force IAF airstrikes on targets in Gaza, as well the Iron Dome was deployed in the Negev over "Beersheba, Sderot and Ashdod."
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Wednesday stated the reluctance to release prisoners based on the increase in terrorism and violence; "We are now before the third [terrorist] release [. . .] we will decide if - and whom - to release. Judea and Samaria has not been quiet. We call this an 'atmosphere of terror' and it is due to the Palestinian Authority's incitement against Israel. The statistics speak for themselves: in 2012 we saw a decline in terror attacks, but in the past several months we have seen a rise in terror attacks."
On Saturday evening, Dec. 28 the Ministerial Committee on Prisoners' Affairs met to determine which prisoners would be released on Monday. After determining the list, it was made public for 48 hours to allow the family to legally appeal to the release to the Israeli Supreme Court. However, as with the last two times the Israeli Supreme Court sides with the government and usually denies any request not to release the prisoners. The court already on Wednesday ruled it will allow the prisoner release to continue. Families of terror victims already protested outside of Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Dec. 25. This list includes 16 prisoners that murdered Israelis.
Again an announcement for additional building in the West Bank settlements and East Jerusalem will accompany the prisoner release, as has been the habit for the last two releases. Netanyahu intends to announce the construction of 1400 new homes divided by "800 in West Bank settlement blocs and 600 in Jerusalem."
Pollard's release has come into the spotlight again after Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who released information about the United States surveillance program, leaked that U.S. and Britain's GCHQ have been spying on the emails of former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current PM Netanyahu as well as former Foreign Minister Ehud Barak. On Friday, Dec. 20 the "British Guardian, the New York Times and the German Der Spiegel" published reports about the surveillance on Israel especially regarding Olmert, while Yedioth Ahronoth revealed Netanyahu was also spied on.
Netanyahu responded strongly against the NSA spying, saying; "There are certain things friends mustn't do to each other." The Prime Minister waited nearly three days from Friday to Monday's Likud faction meeting in the Knesset to comment on the spying reports. Continuing Netanyahu expressed; "With regard to things published in the past few days, I have asked for an examination of the matter. In the close ties between Israel and the United States, there are things that must not be done and that are not acceptable to us."
The Knesset also renewed their calls to release Pollard because of the surveillance revelations. After 40 Members of the Knesset presented their positions on Jonathan Pollard's release on Wednesday, Dec. 25, the Knesset voted to send U.S. President Barack Obama an official request in the form letter to release Pollard. The measure passed with 106 out of the 120 votes with support from most of the major Jewish parties including; "Likud-Beitenu, Yesh Atid, the Jewish Home, Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and Meretz."
The decision read; "The Israeli Knesset is turning to the US President Barack Obama to request, on humanitarian and humanistic grounds, in light of his grave medical condition, to limit the sentence of Jonathan Pollard and order his immediate release. This humanitarian gesture is essential, and even necessary for Israel-US relations at this time."
The letter was sent to the President Obama, the US Senate and a letter was given to U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro. Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein will send the letter to the Senate, and President Shimon Peres will deliver Obama the petition signed by the MKs. The letter to Obama drafted by "MKs Nachman Shai (Labor) and Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi)" was signed by over "100 MKs" on Monday, Dec. 23 and read; "We ask that you seriously consider the requests that there have been from top, current and former American officials and release Pollard on humanitarian grounds. You have in your hands the right to grant him a final opportunity to complete his life as a free man."
While the letter given to Ambassador Shapiro reads in part; "Pollard has committed a serious offense, but he - and the State of Israel - have apologized. Pollard's release has been a long time coming. It's time for his release, which is critical for US-Israel relations at this time."
Pollard is serving a lifetime sentence for stealing United States defense intelligence documents and then giving them to Israel. Pollard was a navy intelligence analyst, who amassed documents relating to the U.S. policies and activities in Arab countries while working for the American government, and then passed them to the Israeli government. He was convicted for conspiracy relating to those activities from May 1984 to Nov. 1985, when he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 1987, and is serving his time in a North Carolina prison.
Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1998, and admitted to his working on behalf of the Israeli government one year later. He has already served 28 years, and is eligible for parole in Nov. 2015. However, recently Pollard has been hospitalized numerous times for illness related to kidney and gall bladder issues.
PM Netanyahu met with Pollard's wife Esther Pollard on Monday, Dec. 23, for 45 minutes to update "her on the non-stop efforts to release Jonathan." Netanyahu stated; "He should have been released long ago. I think this is understood by everyone here and I believe it is also understood to an increasingly larger crowd in the United States." Netanyahu wants to use Pollard's release as a bargaining chip not only for the release of the Israeli Arab prisoners, but as part of the agreement framework the U.S. plans to present and have signed by the end of January 2014.
The U.S. intends to present an agreement framework to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in January. The framework will touch on all issues and present the U.S. proposed solutions to them including borders and security, Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, it would contain "principles" not "specifics." It is considered a "logical step," and can also lead to adding time to the negations upward to a year to arrive at a final peace agreement. Netanyahu again promised o Thursday, Dec. 26 that "In any peace deal, if achieved, Israel must continue to defend itself on its own."
The United States intends to propose in the framework that Israel abide the 1967 borders, while the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state; the most basic demand Israel has had during the talks. However, there are a lot of divisions that make a deal unlikely including positions on settlement construction, the 1967 borders, the Palestinians refusal to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state and East Jerusalem which is non-negotiable to Israel and the Palestinians want for their own state capital.
The Palestinians also oppose the U.S. proposed security plan would require that Israel Defense Forces IDF soldier maintain a presence in the Jordan Valley for 10 to 15 years after a peace agreement would be signed, with the border between the West Bank and Jordan itself remaining under Israeli control, additionally the U.S. would provide additional security technology. The Palestinians formally rejected the proposal, saying a NATO force and US soldiers be present in the region, but not Israeli soldiers. Israel is insistent about maintaining a presence in the region to ensure the country's security, but are "not satisfied" with the proposal either.
Adding to the elements that would prevent an agreement was a bill to annex the West Bank region of the Jordan Valley, a strategically important area. Prime Minister Netanyahu opposes the bill, even though it has the support of his all members of his Likud party in the Committee, it also has the support of the Bayit Yehudi party. The Ministerial Committee for Legislation passed the bill 8-3, which was introduced by Likud MK Miri Regev. The bill would not pass in the Knesset, but is symbolic to the opposition of the 1967 borders in any peace agreement.
Israeli and Palestinians do not believe that Kerry will be able to forge a peace deal during this round of peace talks that end in April 2014. An Israel Hayom poll released on Friday, Dec. 27 demonstrates how unpopular the peace talks are with Israelis with 85.8 percent believing the talks will not yield an agreement. The prisoner release is especially opposed; 79 percent do not want the third prisoner release to continue because of the rise in terrorism this past week, 54 percent fear that the rise in terrorism will lead to a Third Intifada. While 52.4 percent believe the prisoner release should be tied with freeing Pollard. Additionally, a majority of 35.1 percent of Israelis still consider Netanyahu the best leader for Israel.
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.