JERUSALEM (AP) — The United States is talking with Israel about releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard early from his life sentence as an incentive to the Israelis in the troubled Mideast peace negotiations, people familiar with the talks said Monday. Releasing Pollard, a thorn in U.S.-Israeli relations for three decades, would be an extraordinary step underscoring the urgency of U.S. peace efforts.
Two people describing the talks cautioned that such a release — which would be a dramatic turnaround from previous refusals — was far from certain and that discussions with Israel on the matter were continuing. Both spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks on the record.
In return for the release, the people close to the talks said, Israel would have to undertake significant concessions to the Palestinians in Middle East negotiations. Such concessions could include some kind of freeze on Israeli settlements in disputed territory, the release of Palestinian prisoners beyond those Israel has already agreed to free and a guarantee that Israel would stay at the negotiating table beyond an end-of-April deadline.
Secretary of State John Kerry met for several hours late Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before sitting down with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and another Palestinian official. Kerry met again with Netanyahu on Tuesday morning before his scheduled departure to Brussels for NATO talks on Ukraine.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials have consistently argued against releasing Pollard.
Pollard, an American Jew, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy when he gave thousands of classified documents to his Israeli handlers. The Israelis recruited him to pass along U.S. secrets including satellite photos and data on Soviet weaponry in the 1980s. He was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to Israel and received a life sentence. President Barack Obama and his predecessors have refused to release Pollard despite pleas from Israeli leaders.
Apart from any negotiations in the meantime, Pollard could be released from prison on Nov. 21, 2015 — 30 years after his arrest. He has been serving his sentence at a federal facility in Butner, N.C.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday declined to discuss any possible deal.
"He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence. I don't have any updates on his situation," Carney told reporters at the White House.
Ahead of his trip to the Middle East last March, Obama told Israeli television station Channel 2 that Pollard "is an individual who committed a very serious crime here in the United States."
"He's been serving his time," Obama said. "I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately but what I am going to be doing is to make sure that he, like every other American who's been sentenced, is accorded the same kinds of review and the same examination of the equities that any other individual would provide."
The president said at the time that he recognized the emotions involved in the situation. But he added, "As the president, my first obligation is to observe the law here in the United States and to make sure that it's applied consistently."