Will the Pollard Deal Go Ahead?
Fate of deal to extend peace talks unclear after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas resumes unilateral campaign for further international recognition of a Palestinian state • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cancels plans to visit region.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday (Photo credit: AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday night threw a last-minute hitch into a potential U.S.-brokered deal that would extend the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to early 2015.
At the end of a Palestinian Authority leadership meeting in Ramallah on Tuesday, Abbas took the unilateral step of signing 15 international treaties and conventions, resuming a campaign for further international recognition of a Palestinian state, despite a previous promise to suspend such efforts during the nine-month window of negotiations with Israel. The documents will apparently be submitted on April 29, when that window closes.
“This is our fundamental right and we will not give it up,” Abbas said. “The Israeli government was supposed to meet tonight to discuss the fourth stage [of the prisoner release] and we were informed that the meeting had been canceled and no discussion will be held.
“We are interested in peace and in an independent Palestinian state that will be established in peace beside Israel, but we keep facing delays—more and more delays. So the Palestinian leadership unanimously decided to join international organizations and institutions. We are not closing the door and we have hope for the peace process. This is not a move against the United States. We will stick to our commitments and we will take advantage of every moment until April 29 to try to save the negotiations.”
A senior Palestinian official told Israel Hayom on Tuesday that this was not the end of the negotiations, but he pointed an accusatory finger at Israel, saying that the new conditions Israel set had shuffled the deck.
“In the early hours of the morning, it seemed we would have a deal, [but] the terms have changed,” the official said.
“Israel refused to include Israeli Arabs in the fourth stage, aggressively demanded to be the ones to put together the next list of those to be released, cut the list of prisoners almost in half, and insisted that the settlement freeze will not include sites that have already been publicly announced or construction in east Jerusalem. We did not agree to that because it is extortion.”
Imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard (Photo credit: AP)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled plans to travel to the region again on Wednesday. He had been supposed to meet with Abbas in Ramallah. Despite the Palestinian move, Kerry said it was “completely premature” to write off the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“We are continuing, even now … to be engaged with both parties,” Kerry said in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. “We urge both sides to show restraint while we work with them. President Abbas has given me his word that he will continue to negotiate until the end of April.”
Kerry said he was unsure he would travel to the region.
Given the Palestinian move, the fate of the potential deal to extend the peace talks is unclear. The deal would include the U.S. freeing imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. If the deal goes ahead, Pollard could celebrate Passover as a free man after languishing for more than 28 years in an American prison.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could present the deal to his government for approval as soon as Wednesday. Yet, the deal faces opposition on four different fronts—within Likud, from other coalition members, from the Palestinians, and from the U.S.
Members of the coalition held discussions on Tuesday on preventing a government collapse if the deal is approved.
The diplomatic fluster began late Monday night, when Kerry and Netanyahu agreed that the U.S. would release Pollard before the first night of Passover, and deport him to Israel. In return, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would be extended until January 2015; the Palestinians would agree not to apply to U.N. institutions for statehood recognition until the peace talks end; Israel would limit construction in Judea and Samaria to development projects already underway, with construction continuing in private housing, public institutions and in Jerusalem; and Israel would release 26 terrorists with blood on their hands, including 12 Israeli Arab terrorists, as well as 400 Palestinian security prisoners who were convicted for terrorist activities but are not considered to have blood on their hands.
Netanyahu briefed his ministers on the matter, and as of Wednesday, analysts believed he would secure a majority to approve the deal, although it remains to be seen at what cost.
Deputy ministers in Likud have threatened to resign if the deal goes through, and Habayit Hayehudi is said to be considering a similar move. Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin tried to facilitate an agreement between settlement heads and Habayit Hayehudi to stave off a last-minute political crisis, while warning Netanyahu that the deal could spell the coalition’s end. Elkin told Netanyahu he would probably resign if the construction freeze in Judea and Samaria proved too extensive for settlement leaders, while Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon (Likud) called on Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett to join him in quitting the government if the prisoner release is approved.
If the coalition survives, the deal with the Palestinians is expected to win the support of Yesh Atid and Hatnuah, as well as several Likud ministers.
Bennett held a session with party leaders to determine how Habayit Hayehudi ministers should react to the deal. While agreeing that all Habayit Hayehudi’s ministers would vote against the deal, the party went just short of saying it would quite the coalition in the event that the deal is approved.
The general perspective in Jerusalem is that Netanyahu is standing at a point of no return in his commitment to the U.S. over the deal, and threats by Habayit Hayehudi are unlikely to persuade him otherwise. On the other hand, calling off further negotiations with the Palestinians could trigger Hatnuah’s departure from the coalition, which could end up precipitating Yesh Atid’s resignation as well.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials were also playing down the deal for Pollard’s release. White House press secretary Jay Carney said: “Obviously a lot of things [are] happening in that arena … the president has not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard.”
Mounting reports of Pollard’s imminent release raised eyebrows in Washington as well. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) told MSNBC that releasing Pollard would be a “serious mistake.”
“It tells me that the administration is at its wits’ end here and believes that Netanyahu is the sole person in this equation. I think this is a horrible idea. I think it sends a horrible message,” Rogers said.
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. peace negotiator, said even considering such a move smacked of desperation over the crumbling peace process. Miller said an early release for Pollard in the “age of [whistle-blower Edward] Snowden” would send the wrong signal about the consequences of spying on American soil.
Meanwhile, a member of the U.S. Parole Commission said that Pollard had waived a planned parole hearing. Commissioner Patricia Smoot said the hearing had been scheduled for Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, bereaved relatives of terror victims lashed out at the Israeli government over its talks with the U.S., fearing that the terrorists who murdered their loved ones could be released. Meir Indor, the director of the Almagor Terror Victims Association, said, “This proposal, to release Pollard for murderers, is morally bankrupt.”