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When Pollard comes up, it's a sign Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have derailed (+video)

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(Read caption) Kerry returns to Middle East for flailing peace talks
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US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Israel today to "salvage" a peace process that has been on the rocks for years. What prompted his abrupt change of plans? A broken promise by Israel over the weekend. Israel had promised to release Palestinian prisoners in four batches as part of a set of confidence-building measures agreed to last July after heavy lobbying by Mr. Kerry and other US officials.

But Israel balked at releasing the last batch of prisoners on Saturday. We are now approaching the end of a renewed set of talks that have steadily moved away from their stated goal. In July, the original plan was for an agreement to be reached by the end of April 2014. As time passed with little progress, much like the past 25 years, Kerry downgraded hopes from an actual deal to a "framework" deal - essentially making the latest round of talks about more talks. The original "framework" of course dates back to the Oslo accords, signed in 1993.

Even that limited ambition now appears unreachable. Israel refused to release the final 26 prisoners over the weekend, essentially in order to create a new bargaining chip. If Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas promises to extend the talks (about talks) another six months, Israeli says it will release 400 more Palestinian prisoners at some point in the future. The Palestinian team has said talks are over on April 29 if the originally agreed upon prisoner release doesn't happen.

So much for "confidence building."

The fact remains that Israeli settlements continue to expand in the West Bank, which along with the Gaza Strip is meant to form an eventual Palestinian state. Israel has insisted that it should be allowed to maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley as a condition to any deal – something that's probably a deal breaker for Mr. Abbas. And Abbas is as politically weak as ever, with Hamas still in control of the Gaza strip and after his own failure to secure either the Palestinian statehood or United Nations recognition that he promised his supporters.

Meanwhile, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted no deal can be completed until Abbas and the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state up front. That's something that would amount to Abbas signing away the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants before he had concrete concessions from the Israeli side. 

What can Kerry do about this? Not much, given the attitudes of the two sides and US politics. Instead, he's just the latest senior US official to wade into Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking without much leverage and without partners who are serious about making a deal.

It's nice to hope for the best. But force of will or diplomatic charm aren't likely to take Kerry very far, as was made clear by the contempt Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon expressed for Kerry's efforts at the start of the year: "The only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel prize and leaves us alone," Mr. Yaalon said, adding that Kerry "is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling."

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Jonathan Pollard speaks during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, N.C., May 15, 1998.

Karl DeBlaker/AP/File

The 'P-word'

One sign of the problem is how frequently unrelated issues are mentioned as possible ways to move Israeli-Palestinian talks forward. Exhibit A: Jonathan Pollard.

Mr. Pollard, a former civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy, sold US secrets to Israel in the early 1980s, was caught in 1985, and sentenced to life in prison in 1987. The Israeli government and prominent friends of Israel in the US have long lobbied for Pollard's release. And almost every time a US president has tried to restart the peace process, Pollard has been mentioned by anonymous Israeli officials as a key to progress.

Now is no different. Reuters reports from Jerusalem today that an "official" said the US may agree to release Pollard in exchange for Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners it promised earlier to release. Why? To "salvage Middle East peace talks," Reuters writes.

Last December, Israel's Channel 2 cited unnamed officials saying that Mr. Netanyahu was planning on linking Pollard's release to either the signing of a "framework agreement" with the Palestinians on a peace deal, or to promised Palestinian prisoner releases. Netanyahu's office refused to confirm or deny that report.

The actual chances that President Barack Obama will release Pollard under any circumstances are slim. In 2010, retired Navy lawyer Spike Bowman, who was the senior legal adviser to Navy intelligence at the time of Pollard's espionage case, said "no other spy in the history of the United States stole so many secrets, so highly classified, in such a short period of time." Other officials who worked on the damage assessment have since said that material provided to Israel about US intelligence collection in the Soviet Union was meant to be traded by Israel in exchange for the Soviets allowing greater Jewish emigration.

In 1998, when Netanyahu was leaning on then-President Bill Clinton to release Pollard in exchange for progress on peace with the Palestinians, CIA Director George Tenet threatened to quit if Mr. Clinton took the deal, citing the damage Pollard had done to US interests. Anger within the US intelligence community remains today, something President Obama must be well aware of, just as Clinton was then.

What does any of this have to do with Palestinians making peace with Israel, and the possible creation of an independent Palestinian state? Absolutely nothing.

Which is the point.

The "peace process" is something for Israel to manage, and if it can, something for it to game. The Palestinians would indeed like more prisoners released, and don't care at all what happens to Pollard. Israel would dearly like to get their spy out of jail. But his release has nothing to do with the US attempting to broker peace between the two parties, and would likely prove politically crippling for Obama. And what would the US get in return? More talks about talks.

Expensive at the price.

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