JERUSALEM (Apr. 16)
Israeli and American officials have dismissed reports that convicted spy Jonathan Pollard might be released in a swap. Landmark elections in Israel and the Palestinian Authority have raised fresh speculation that Pollard, the former U.S. Navy analyst serving a life prison sentence for spying for Israel, could win clemency as part of wider diplomatic Mideast maneuvering.
Israel Army Radio reported Sunday that Israel planned to offer to release jailed Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti in exchange for Pollard after Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert forms his new government.
The rationale for such a swap is rooted in Hamas’ political takeover in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. As a leader of the rival, more pragmatic faction Fatah, Barghouti, if freed, could be expected to undermine the radical Islamic group — something both Jerusalem and Washington want.
Barghouti is serving five life sentences plus 40 years for murder and attempted murder in the form of terrorist attacks.
Israeli government officials denied the reported plan, and a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv dismissed it as “speculation.”
That left open the possibility that someone in Olmert’s office was floating a trial balloon, testing reaction in Israel and the United States to the idea of a Pollard-Barghouti swap.
Pollard’s wife, Esther, suggested that the report might serve a narrower Israeli interest. Olmert, who narrowly won last month’s general elections as head of the centrist Kadima Party, is keen to shore up right-wing support ahead of planned withdrawals from the West Bank.
Being perceived as campaigning for Pollard to be pardoned could help Olmert with more conservative voters.
Still busy trying to build a governing coalition, Olmert is widely expected to turn the Pensioners Party led by Rafi Eitan — Pollard’s recruiter and handler.
Eitan, who was then head of the industrial espionage unit Lakam, took responsibility for the Pollard affair.
He told Yediot Achronot last week that the young Navy analyst provided “information of such high quality and accuracy, so good and so important to the country’s security” that “my desire, my appetite to get more and more material overcame me.”
Eitan, now 79, has vowed to lobby for Pollard from the Knesset. But that has done little to mollify the ex-spy, who accuses Eitan of forsaking him.
Through his lawyer, Nitzana Darshan-Leitner, Pollard has threatened to petition Israel’s High Court of Justice against any Cabinet portfolio appointment offered to Eitan.
Such an open legal hearing, Darshan-Leitner said, would entail going public with a “very damaging” secret document that she alleged Eitan still holds.