Jonathan Pollard is a spy. He used his position as a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy in the 1980s to funnel classified US intel to Israel in exchange for money and jewelry. His insistence that his actions were not about money, but about passing information to Israel that America was withholding in violation of its treaty agreements with Israel (and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that his story about his motivations is a bald-faced lie), is irrelevant in terms of whether or not he committed the crime of espionage, which he did. The reason you can say “he did,” without any qualifiers, is because Pollard admitted to it in court. Pollard was sentenced to life in prison in 1985, after his trial judge ignored the plea deal he had reached with prosecutors, citing the extent of Pollard’s spying and an interview he gave to a young(er) Wolf Blitzer (when he was at the Jerusalem Post) in violation of his deal, and imposed the maximum penalty.
Pollard is eligible for parole next year, and there’s been pressure for the US to release him for more than 20 years, though Israel only acknowledged that he’d been their spy in 1998. In short, he’s got fewer days in prison ahead of him than he has behind him, but his release is still important to Israel and especially to Benjamin Netanyahu, who promised to get Pollard sprung when he became Prime Minister in 2007. So it makes sense that the US might dangle Pollard’s release in exchange for considerable Israeli concessions in talks with the Palestinians, maybe as a final asset to trade for that last bit of Israeli movement that seals a deal. Yet here we are, offering to let Pollard out of prison and asking only for a one year extension of talks (because while we haven’t come close to a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 66 years, one more is sure to do the trick!), for Israel to release some Palestinian prisoners in order to get the Palestinians to agree to the extension, and for Israel to maybe sort of mumble mumble not quite so many illegal settlements if they feel like it. From the standpoint of the negotiations, this is a ridiculous giveaway.
Except the Obama administration has probably given up trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians to reach an accord and has resigned itself to just putting off the collapse of talks until after the midterms. That’s what Mitchell Plitnick is suggesting, and it’s hard to argue with his logic. The issue is that the talks themselves are actually more important to Obama, as pure theater, than they are to either of the two parties who are actually supposed to be talking. The best result Israel can hope for out of this (or, really, any) round of talks is that they result in nothing (keeping the far right partners in Netanyahu’s coalition happy) but that the Palestinians can plausibly be blamed for their eventual collapse (so Israel’s international standing isn’t damaged). The Palestinian cause is actually being harmed the longer these pointless talks stretch on, since they have to hold off on pursuing membership in various international organizations that can confer legitimacy on their quest for statehood. They’d be better off if we traded Pollard for the prisoner release and nothing else (i.e., no extension of talks). It’s only the Obama administration, which would really prefer to make it from now through November without the collapse of any of their major foreign policy initiatives (Crimea and Syria are problematic enough without adding this), that benefits from the extension.
After all these years, nobody has figured out how to use American leverage to rectify the imbalance in the I-P relationship, the fact that Israel is always negotiating from a position of strength. Maybe the reason the Israelis are so worried that Iran is going to roll over Obama in those nuclear negotiations is because the Israelis themselves have been able to roll over him on the peace process.