U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been pulling out all the stops to try to bring some semblance of peace to the perennially troubled Middle East, but one stop he has not been able to pull involves a gnawing controversy of more than a quarter of a century. It's a move that, if made, may anger Palestinians and would upset the U.S. intelligence community, but the former can be appeased and the latter will have to look at the big picture. That move is the release of former intelligence analyst Jonathan J. Pollard, jailed since 1987 for passing military information to Israel.
The 59-year-old Mr. Pollard, who spied for the Israelis through much of the 1980s, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 and is being held in a federal penitentiary in North Carolina. Obviously, spying is a serious offense, but there were extenuating circumstances to Mr. Pollard's case that form the basis for an argument that after 27 years in jail he has paid sufficiently for his crime. Israel has long argued for his release, and if doing so triggers the release of Arabs jailed in Israel, that action could boost the peace talks Mr. Kerry has invested so much energy and prestige in bringing to fruition.
A civilian intelligence analyst for the U.S. Navy, Mr. Pollard was recruited by Israel after the U.S. stopped sharing intelligence with Israel following that nation's bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. The intelligence he provided had long been shared with Israel through official Washington channels and was halted solely for diplomatic reasons. Israel wasn't getting anything it had not gotten before and the security of the U.S. was not jeopardized by Mr. Pollard's actions. Mr. Pollard agreed to a deal with prosecutors in which he would plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence, but the judge sentenced him to life in prison. According to a Boston Globe report this month, backers of Mr. Pollard who have kept his case before the media believe that a secret affidavit given the judge by then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was the cause of the judge's surprising decision.
The Israeli right and left don't agree on much, but conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres, a strong advocate for peace, both want Mr. Pollard, who has been granted Israeli citizenship, to be released. The Obama administration should propose releasing him in exchange for the release by Israel of jailed Arabs who hold Israeli ID cards, a deal The Globe's Bryan Bender wrote that Israel would likely make. The U.S. intelligence community will squawk, but we are a long way from 1987, and the recent revelations of international spying on the part of the National Security Agency make it difficult for U.S. intelligence officials to claim the moral high ground when it comes to spying. Besides, Mr. Pollard's release would be for the greater good of the Middle East.
The latest Middle East peace talks will need all the help they can get if they are to make any progress in the face of long odds and considerable skepticism. The release of Jonathan Pollard from prison would help, and President Obama should make that happen.