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Pollard, settlement freeze, prisoners in the mix amid peace talks crisis

Israelis calling for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during President Obama's visit to Jerusalem, March 19, 2013. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
Israelis calling for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during President Obama’s visit to Jerusalem, March 19, 2013. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

 WASHINGTON (JTA) — Possibilities raised during efforts to resolve the current crisis over Israeli-Palestinian peace talks include freeing Jonathan Pollard, a partial settlement freeze, guarantees that Palestinians won’t push for international recognition and a mass prisoner release.

 Officials close to the talks confirmed to JTA that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had discussed a formula that would extend the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, now on the verge of collapse, into 2015.

 Among other elements discussed were:

 –The release of Pollard, the American spy for Israel sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987, by Passover later this month.

 –A freeze on new housing starts in West Bank settlements. The freeze would not include Jerusalem, would not include infrastructure such as schools or roads and would not apply to existing projects.

 –The release of 26 Palestinian terrorists who were to have been released over the weekend, including for the first time Arab Israelis, as well as another 400 Palestinians in prison. Israel would have final say on which prisoners would be released as part of the 400, and none of those would be people who had been involved in any killings.

 –A commitment by the Palestinians to stay at the negotiations table until 2015, under conditions that include abiding by a pledge not to seek statehood recognition.

 Kerry, in Brussels to discuss the Ukraine crisis with European allies and just returned from meetings in Israel with Netanyahu, would not confirm these details in comments to reporters. But he said he had assurances from the Israeli and Palestinian leaders that the talks would continue at least until April 29, the deadline Kerry set last July when he reconvened Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

 “Even tonight both parties say they want to try and find a way forward,” Kerry said in Brussels.

He warned the sides that the success of the process was in their hands.

“We will do everything in our power, President Obama is as committed to this as anybody,” he said. “Facilitation is only as good as the willingness of leaders to actually make decisions when they’re in front of them.”

It was not clear if Kerry would return to Ramallah as earlier announced to present any plan to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Reports said that Abbas had cancelled their Wednesday meeting, then that Kerry had cancelled it.

“We have certain things we’re trying to figure out regarding the logistics on the ground,” Kerry said, referring to whether he would return to the region.

A barrage of conflicting reports and actions continued to emerge from both camps in the region.

Among these was Abbas’ sudden decision to sign applications for state-level membership in 15 international agencies and conventions, in apparent defiance of the principles guiding these peace talks. The move was made in retaliation for Israel’s failure to release a final batch of 26 prisoners as promised by March 29, as agreed to under the terms guiding the peace talks.

Israel has already released 78 prisoners connected to fatal terrorist attacks as it had agreed to, but Israeli Cabinet ministers said they want Abbas to commit to another nine months of talks before releasing the final batch.

Kerry in Brussels said that Abbas’ applications did not technically violate the agreement because he was not applying to United Nations agencies. Israel insisted Abbas suspend such bids as a precondition for reconvening the peace talks last year.

It was not clear which 15 agencies and conventions Abbas had selected, although an anonymous Palestinian official told The New York Times they included the Geneva conventions for treatment of combatants and civilians in war; the Vienna convention, which could refer to a number of treaties governing relations between nations; and agencies “dealing with women’s and children’s rights.”

The official told the Times that the Palestinians did not apply for membership in two international courts, the move Israel fears most because it could facilitate war crimes prosecutions against Israelis.

The release of Pollard as part of a peace deal has been an Israeli demand since Netanyahu raised it in his first stint as prime minister during the 1998 U.S.-Israel-Palestinian talks that produced the Wye River agreement.

According to officials involved in the original investigation of Pollard, he may be released in any case next year under laws in place at the time of his 1985 arrest that required the paroled release of life sentences after 30 years. Advocates for Pollard insist this is not the case.

Pollard has been eligible for parole for 19 years but has not applied; the Associated Press reported that Pollard had waived a planned parole hearing that was to have taken place on Tuesday.

The report, quoting officials at the federal prison in Butner, N.C., where Pollard is being held, did not explain why he agreed to go ahead with the hearing, why he then waived it and whether it was connected to peace process.

A number of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have in recent years said that Pollard, 59, should be granted clemency on humanitarian grounds.

The top two senators on the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), told The Daily Beast that they opposed the release.

Two Jewish groups, the Zionist Organization of America and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Pollard should be released on humanitarian grounds and not as  part of a peace deal.