by Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post
Former US president Bill Clinton said in a recent conversation with a prominent US Jewish leader that when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu went to the Wye River Plantation talks in 1998 with Yasser Arafat, he thought that he would return to Israel with Jonathan Pollard, according to Israeli diplomatic sources.
According to these sources, this is the first time Clinton has acknowledged that Netanyahu went to the talks thinking he had Pollard’s freedom in hand.
In the end, a deal to release Pollard as part of the agreements with Arafat was scuttled when then-CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if the deal went through.
The revelation by sources in Jerusalem of a private conversation Clinton had with a Jewish leader regarding an episode that took place more than a decade ago took on increased significance Monday amid reports – or perhaps trial balloons – that one idea being discussed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Washington regarding how to deal with the imminent end of the settlement construction moratorium would be that Israel would extend the moratorium if Pollard, who has been in a US prison for 25 years, were released.
His projected release date is November 21, 2015, if he maintains a clean record in prison.
Among the US officials Barak was scheduled to meet in Washington on Monday was Dennis Ross, who dealt at some length in his memoir The Missing Peace with how the Pollard issue played out during the Wye talks. In that book Ross, who was the US Middle East envoy at the time, wrote that Clinton considered releasing Pollard to try to ensure that an Israeli-PA deal would be sealed.
In the end, Ross wrote, he himself advised Clinton against going ahead with the release when Netanyahu said he would not sign the Wye deal without Pollard’s release.
“Did you make a commitment to release Pollard?” Ross quoted himself as asking Clinton in the book. “If you did, you have to release him.”
According to Ross, “The president swore he had made no promises; he’s said he would see what he could do, but he had made no promises.
I then said, ‘If you did not make a promise to him, you should not give in to this.’” Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday denied reports that Pollard has been placed into settlement construction moratorium equation, with one official saying the report was “not accurate.”
Pollard’s wife, Esther, when asked by The Jerusalem Post for her response to the idea, said, “I’m not doing any interviewing.”
The idea first emerged on Saturday in a report written by Aaron Lerner for his Independent Media Review Analysis (IMRA) website under the headline, “Observation: Proposed Pollard-Freeze Extension Exchange Tests Commitment of Obama Administration to Peace Process.”
In the piece, Lerner said that the “IMRA understands Netanyahu would have no problem getting his cabinet to approve a three-month extension of the settlement construction freeze in exchange” for Pollard’s release.
Just as important, he wrote, “none of the parties in the ruling coalition are expected to threaten to leave the government in the event that such a deal is implemented.”
The next day the Justice for Jonathan Pollard organization picked up the IMRA piece, placed it on its website along with a disclaimer that it was not necessarily endorsing the idea, and also sent it out to journalists.
On Monday, Army Radio reported that putting Pollard on the table as part of a moratorium extension deal was being considered.
Danny Dayan, head of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, was critical of the idea, telling Army Radio, “It’s ugly blackmail, equivalent to giving up the Golan in exchange for Gilad Schalit.”
And Adi Ginsberg, an executive member of the Jerusalembased Committee to Bring Jonathan Pollard Home, was doubtful that such a deal was possible.
Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein, who has visited Pollard in jail, said the whole story was “cheap spin,” trafficking both in Pollard’s suffering and the hardships caused by the moratorium to 300,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line.
“There is no such proposal, and never was,” Edelstein said.
Five years ago, in the run-up to the disengagement from Gaza, large headlines appeared in the Hebrew press that Israel was hopeful then- US president George W. Bush would release Pollard in order to bridge the rifts that were being caused in Israel as a result of the debate over the Gaza withdrawal.
Pollard, a former civilian intelligence analyst for the US Navy, was convicted of spying for Israel 25 years ago and received a life sentence for passing classified information to an ally. He is being held at a prison in North Carolina.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.