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TEL AVIV – The U.S. consideration to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard is tied to the release from Israeli jail of Marwan Barghouti, the accused architect of the Palestinian intifada, the terror campaign that began in September 2000, according to informed diplomatic sources here.
The deal is being discussed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Besides the freedom of Barghouti, the U.S. is also demanding that Israel agree to a final-status framework deal on all core issues in exchange for releasing Pollard. Core issues include the status of Jerusalem and Israeli communities in the strategic West Bank and Jordan Valley.
The diplomatic sources here said the U.S. did not make any official decision on Pollard. The sources said if Israel considers the deal, President Obama will appoint a special team from the FBI, CIA and other national security agencies to study the ramifications of Pollard’s release.
Barghouti is serving five life sentences plus 40 years in jail for his role in killings Israeli civilians, including allegedly planning multiple deadly suicide attacks.
He is a confessed founder of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the terrorist organization associated with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.
Al Aqsa, designated as a terror group by the State Department, has carried out scores of suicide bombings and deadly shooting attacks, and has fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli towns.
Barghouti is widely seen as a contender for PA presidency, with polling data finding the jailed strongman more popular among Palestinians than Abbas.
Abbas is particularly interested in Barghouti’s release at this time due to a major blowup between the PA president and Fatah revolutionary Mahmad Dahlan. Abbas sees Dahlan as a threat to his interests in the Palestinian territories as well as to Fatah camps in Lebanon and Syria, according to the diplomatic sources.
Earlier this month, Qadoura Fares, chairman of the Palestinian Prisoner Club, confirmed Abbas renewed a demand for Israel to free Barghouti as part of a prisoner-release deal that would keep stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks going.
Abbas reportedly asked the Obama administration to mediate Barghouti’s release with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Israel has refused to free Barghouti in other prisoner swaps, including an October 2011 deal that secured the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The release of Barghouti would be highly controversial within Netanyahu’s coalition as well as with the broader Israeli public.
Tying Pollard to the deal could help Netanyahu sell Barghouti’s release domestically. There is widespread support in Israel for freeing Pollard.
Pollard worked as a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst and was indicted in 1985 on one count of passing classified information to an ally, Israel, and sentenced to life imprisonment in spite of a plea agreement that was to spare him a life sentence.
Pollard’s sentence is considered by many to be disproportionate to the crime for which he was convicted. He is the only person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for spying for an ally. The median sentence for the offense is two to four years.
The unprecedented sentence was largely thought to have been driven by a last-minute secret memorandum from Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger, in which he accused Pollard of treason – a crime for which he was never indicted – and claimed Pollard harmed America’s national security.
But even Weinberger, before his death in 2006, said the sentence may be about something else.
Weinberger said in a 2004 interview that the Pollard issue was “a very minor matter, but made very important.”
“It was made far bigger than its actual importance,” he said.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is no stranger to the Pollard affair.
Prior to the signing of the 1998 Wye River Israeli-Palestinian Accords, Netanyahu, prime minister at the time, was told by President Bill Clinton that Pollard would be released as part of a deal that also would free 750 Palestinian terrorists from Israeli prisons. Netanyahu signed off on the accords and released the terrorists, later saying the freeing of Pollard was for him the dealmaker. But Clinton reneged and kept Pollard imprisoned.
Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, a key Wye negotiator, later wrote in his book about the negotiations, “The Missing Peace,” that he cautioned Clinton against releasing Pollard, saying the Israeli spy was too important a “political bargaining chip.”
Pollard’s release “would be a huge payoff” for Israel, he wrote, “you don’t have many like it in your pocket.”
“You will need it later, don’t use it now.”