What the Jonathan Pollard deal tells us about the “Peace Process”

by Yousef Munayyer

If it seems to you that a deal to release Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of espionage for Israel, to keep a moribund “peace process” above water is some sort of April Fools’, joke you are not alone. But this, sadly, is typical of Washington’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Pollard is serving a life sentence and is due to be released in a couple years. Previous Israeli governments have requested his release only to be denied by previous American administrations. Numerous high-ranking intelligence officials have objected to his early release on account of the extent of the damage his espionage caused. But the bigger issue here is not that the U.S. is considering releasing a convicted spy to Israel, but rather how and for what and what this says about the entire “peace process.” The terms of the deal have been leaking out and are detailed here. Let’s keep in mind that this is just a report for now but multiple outlets have reported that a deal is in the works from government officials on both sides and reported similar terms.

If these are in fact the terms, they are little more than another indictment of American mediation. Let’s take them one at a time.

In return for the early release of Jonathan Pollard, Israel will:

1. Release 26 Palestinian prisoners, the fourth batch of the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners which it refused to release this past week.

2. Release 400 additional prisoners, many of whom are woman and children that are not convicted of crimes with “blood on their hands.”

3. Israel will “exercise restraint” in building in the West Bank, not including occupied Jerusalem.

This is a very long way of saying that in return for the early release of Pollard, Israel will do several things it already should have done long ago. Or, to put it even more succinctly, that Israel will be rewarded for violating commitments.

The 26 Palestinian prisoners were supposed to be released last week as part of a deal Secretary of State John Kerry brokered between Netanyahu and Abbas. Abbas agreed to hold off on going to international institutions with the Palestinian statehood bid for nine months of negotiations if Israel released the 104 pre-Oslo prisoners. Israel insisted on a phased release and after three phases they balked, went back on their commitment and refused to release the fourth group. Israel refused to release the prisoners saying that they did not want to do so without a Palestinian commitment to extend negotiations beyond the nine-month period which concludes on April 29th. But, of course, that was not the deal.

The deal was releasing the prisoners for a period of 9-month negotiations without international bids. Any agreement to an extension of the talks from the Palestinian side would be contingent on progress since the Palestinians do not want the negotiations to be what they have been in the past: a cover for Israeli colonization and occupation. Of course there has been no progress in the talks, only regress, because of absurd and hard line positions taken by the Israeli government which they know no Palestinian leader can agree to, including insistence on the “Jewish State” issue and more.

But Israel was not only trying to use the last batch of 26 prisoners, a bargaining chip they had already committed to using eight months ago, again. It has already reused this same group of 104 prisoners as a bargaining chip over again. In 1999, Israel agreed to release these pre-Oslo prisoners but never did so. So they have effectively cashed in this bargaining chip three times not only to extract concessions from the Palestinians, but now also from the Americans in the form of Jonathan Pollard. Washington is getting robbed in broad daylight and no one seems to care.

The second thing Israel will reportedly do in return for Pollard is also something they should have done already. The 400 prisoners they are to release might sound significant. The reality is many of these prisoners are “administrative detainees,” which means they have not been convicted of anything and in many cases never been charged or tried. They are basically picked up and held indefinitely without any due process. Amnesty International has said that these practices “contravene Israel’s obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law” and Human Rights Watch has demanded Israel “stop jailing people without charge of trial.” So, in essence, Israel is using its violations of international law as bargaining chips as well.

The third thing Israel will commit to doing is “exercise restraint” in further colonizing the West Bank. We’ve seen how this played out before. They claimed to freeze settlements while not actually freezing them and colonial activity in occupied Jerusalem was never even slowed. Now they claim they will “exercise restraint.” In reality, a settlement freeze was a first phase Israeli obligation under the Road Map in 2003 and has always been illegal under international law. Ending settlement construction is an Israeli obligation and one that they should have been held accountable for since 1967 but have not been. Instead, they are once again able to use this violation of international law as a bargaining chip.

Time and again, Israel has been allowed to use the same bargaining chips over and over and commit to ending violations of international law which it never seems to end in return for concessions from Palestinians, now they are doing this to get concessions from Washington as well. Frankly, Washington is as much to blame for this embarrassment as Israel is. By failing to adequately play to role of mediator and enforcing Israeli commitments and obligations, Washington has enabled this Israeli misbehavior.

The United States of America, the lone superpower in the world, has to bribe a client state to get it to maybe stop violating some international laws for a few months. If the U.S. is so weak before Israel when it comes to merely making sure Israel releases prisoners they already committed to release three times over fifteen years, how on earth will they get them to meet obligations on core issues like borders, refugees, Jerusalem, etc in a comprehensive peace agreement?

SPOILER ALERT: They can’t!

This is why the Washington-led peace process has become a farce and why so many around the globe are turning toward alternative ways to demand Palestinian rights.


Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. 

The views in this brief do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.