We appear to be in the midst of another Jonathan Pollard eruption in the Middle East peace talks, which means, among other things, that the peace talks are close to collapsing.
Pollard, you will recall, was the U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who stole valuable American secrets and passed them to Israel. In his delusional mind, he was playing the role of Mordechai in the Purim story, protecting the Jews from imminent annihilation. (He was under the impression that the United States was keeping existentially important information from its ally.) In reality, Pollard was a traitor, and he was treated as such, receiving a life sentence after being convicted of espionage. He has been imprisoned for almost 30 years now.
During this period, Pollard's image in Israel has undergone a transformation. At first, the Israeli government refused to acknowledge that he was in their employ. Now, his release is a broad-spectrum cause among Israel's public. As a purely humanitarian matter, Pollard's supporters in Israel (and in the U.S.) have an argument: His sentence was unusually harsh, and there is evidence to suggest that federal prosecutors violated a plea agreement they struck with him.
Pollard has never been particularly well in the head, and he is said to be substantially more damaged now than he was when he was arrested. If the Obama administration decides that Pollard has paid his debt to society, and chooses to free him, so be it. He does not have my sympathy, but I understand his supporters' motivation.
If, however, the Obama administration is considering releasing Pollard as a way to advance peace negotiations — as many Israeli politicians have apparently been arguing — then the Obama administration needs to hire savvier negotiators.
Pollard's release would constitute a political triumph for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and it would create feelings of gratitude for Netanyahu among the right-wing ministers in his ruling coalition. But these feelings would dissipate entirely at the exact moment when Netanyahu returns to the business at hand: trading land to the Palestinians in exchange for peace. These feelings would also dissipate, though not quite to the same degree, the moment Netanyahu once again began releasing Palestinian prisoners to the custody of the Palestinian Authority.
The right-wing of the Netanyahu coalition, and the right- most members of the prime minister's own Likud Party, would like very much to welcome Pollard at Ben-Gurion International Airport, but they will not trade land for him, not one inch. To think otherwise is foolish. The cause of Middle East peace will not be advanced by the release of a hapless spy.
— Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs.