JERUSALEM — The United States is talking with Israel about releasing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard early from his life sentence as an incentive to the Israelis in the troubled Mideast peace negotiations, people familiar with the talks said Monday. Releasing Pollard, a thorn in U.S.-Israeli relations for three decades, would be an extraordinary step underscoring the urgency of U.S. peace efforts.
Two people describing the talks cautioned that such a release — which would be a dramatic turnaround from previous refusals — was far from certain and that discussions with Israel on the matter were continuing. Both spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks on the record.
In return for the release, the people close to the talks said, Israel would have to undertake significant concessions to the Palestinians in Middle East negotiations. Such concessions could include some kind of freeze on Israeli settlements in disputed territory, the release of Palestinian prisoners beyond those Israel has already agreed to free and a guarantee that Israel would stay at the negotiating table beyond an end-of-April deadline.
Secretary of State John Kerry met for several hours late Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before sitting down with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and another Palestinian official. Kerry was expected to meet again Tuesday morning with Netanyahu before flying to Brussels for NATO talks on Ukraine.
U.S. defense and intelligence officials have consistently argued against releasing Pollard.
Pollard, an American Jew, was a civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy when he gave thousands of classified documents to his Israeli handlers. The Israelis recruited him to pass along U.S. secrets including satellite photos and data on Soviet weaponry in the 1980s. He was arrested by FBI agents in Washington in 1985 after unsuccessfully seeking refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He pleaded guilty to leaking classified documents to Israel and received a life sentence. President Barack Obama and his predecessors have refused to release Pollard despite pleas from Israeli leaders.
Apart from any negotiations in the meantime, Pollard could be released from prison on Nov. 21, 2015 — 30 years after his arrest. He has been serving his sentence at a federal facility in Butner, N.C.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday declined to discuss any possible deal.
"He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence. I don't have any updates on his situation," Carney told reporters at the White House.
Ahead of his trip to the Middle East last March, Obama told Israeli television station Channel 2 that Pollard "is an individual who committed a very serious crime here in the United States."
"He's been serving his time," Obama said. "I have no plans for releasing Jonathan Pollard immediately but what I am going to be doing is to make sure that he, like every other American who's been sentenced, is accorded the same kinds of review and the same examination of the equities that any other individual would provide."
The president said at the time that he recognized the emotions involved in the situation. But he added, "As the president, my first obligation is to observe the law here in the United States and to make sure that it's applied consistently."
Various suggestions for deals for Pollard's release have been floated over the years, and they were raised again last week in the Israeli press.
The long-running Middle East peace negotiations are snagged over several issues, including wither Israel will agree to release more than two dozen prisoners. They include 14 Arab Israelis whom Palestinian authorities consider to be heroes and freedom fighters. Israel considers them terrorists.
Israel has already released three other groups of prisoners as part of the peace negotiations that began last July. All had served lengthy terms for involvement in attacks on Israelis, and scenes of them returning to jubilant celebrations have angered the Israeli public. A fourth batch was scheduled to be released on March 29, and the delay has prompted Palestinian authorities to threaten to end the negotiations.
Netanyahu has said he would present any additional release recommendations to his Cabinet — where approval is not guaranteed. Netanyahu's coalition is dominated by hard-liners who have been extremely critical of the previous releases. The final release is especially contentious because it is expected to include convicted murderers and Arab citizens of Israel.
Carney declined to offer details when asked about that prisoner release. "This is a complicated issue that is being worked through with the parties," he said.
Pollard is said to be in poor health. His case has become a rallying cry in Israel, where leaders say his nearly three decades in U.S. prison amounts to excessive punishment. Pollard enjoys widespread sympathy among Israelis, and Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have routinely pressed Obama and other U.S. presidents for his pardon or release.
Stiff opposition from the American military and intelligence community has deterred the White House. Intelligence officials have argued that his release would harm national security and that the U.S. must maintain a strong deterrent to allies by warning them of the consequences of spying on American soil.
But there are signs that that resolve may be softening. In recent years, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz, along with prominent figures such as Sen. John McCain and former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, have all called for Pollard's release.
Netanyahu has sought to link a Pollard release to peace talks before. During his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu pressed the issue as part of a 1998 interim deal with the Palestinians. President Bill Clinton rejected that request after fierce opposition from U.S. intelligence officials.
Also during Netanyahu's first term, in the late 1990s, Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship. While Netanyahu was out of office, he visited Pollard in prison. In 2011, Netanyahu formally appealed to the U.S. for the release and made a personal plea to allow him to attend his father's funeral. The U.S. denied those requests.