US Secretary of State John Kerry is closer to a deal that would rescue the faltering Mideast peace talks, pushing a formula that would include the release of convicted US spy Jonathan Pollard and freedom for hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel, an official close to the negotiations said Tuesday.
The deal would not include a freeze on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank as the Palestinians have demanded but would envisage Israel committing to show "great restraint" and not issue new housing tenders.
The remarks were the first sign of breakthrough after weeks of arduous US efforts to keep the negotiations afloat past a late-April deadline. The talks were on the verge of collapse after a planned Palestinian prisoner release did not take place as scheduled last week.
In a sign of the urgency, Kerry flew unexpectedly to Israel from Europe on Monday, where he met Israeli and Palestinian officials in a bid to salvage the negotiations. Pollard's release was discussed as part of a deal that would extend the talks. After a stop in Brussels, the State Department said Kerry would return to the region Wednesday for further talks with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians gave the emerging proposal a cool reception, saying it fell far short of their demands for a complete halt to settlement construction and the freeing of 1,000 prisoners of their choosing.
The inclusion of Pollard, a former US naval intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel nearly three decades ago, is the most surprising element of the deal and reflects the importance — and desperation — that Kerry has put on continuing the talks.
"According to the emerging deal, Pollard would be released before the Passover holiday," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject with media. Passover begins on April 14.
For years, US officials have vehemently opposed any talk of releasing Pollard early. He is serving a life sentence at a federal prison in North Carolina but eligible for parole in November 2015. He was arrested in 1985, and convicted of espionage for giving reams of classified documents to his Israeli handlers.
Pollard's case has become a rallying cry in Israel, where leaders say his lengthy prison sentence amounts to excessive punishment when compared to other US espionage cases. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once visited Pollard in prison when he was out of politics, and other Israeli leaders have routinely pressed President Barack Obama and other US presidents for his pardon or release.
As recently as last week, US officials were outspoken in ruling out an early release of Pollard. But on Monday, they appeared to soften their line. "He is a person who is convicted of espionage and is serving his sentence. I don't have any updates on his situation," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in Washington.
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, a lawyer for Pollard, would not comment directly on the deal but said that "once released, he will come and live in Israel." She said Pollard remained in poor health, and that twice over the last year he was kept overnight at a medical facility.
Securing Pollard's release would help Netanyahu sell a package that would include more releases of Palestinian prisoners — something that would otherwise be unpopular with his hard-line Cabinet.
A number of senior officials have already come out against further releases, and Netanyahu's coalition is dominated by lawmakers sympathetic to the West Bank settler movement.
Netanyahu's Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, said he would oppose Pollard's release if it is linked to freedom for Palestinian prisoners convicted of killing Israelis.
"Israel must not release murderers. Israel shouldn't reach such a deal," Ariel, from the hard-line Jewish Home party, told Army Radio. "Pollard deserves any other deal in order to be released."
Ariel also said Pollard himself opposes being freed in exchange for Palestinian prisoners, citing people close to the US spy who conveyed Pollard's stance.
Israel and the Palestinians launched talks last July, agreeing to nine months of negotiations with the goal of reaching a final peace deal. After that became unrealistic, Kerry scaled back his plans and said he would try to present a "framework" deal by the end of April, with the goal of extending talks through the end of the year to hammer out details of a final agreement.
A senior Palestinian official said Palestinian leaders were to meet later Tuesday and would likely reject the proposed plan.
"The plan is vague, and the Palestinians didn't accept it and will not accept it," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations with the media.
He said Israeli and Palestinian negotiators were still discussing details of the plan.
Israel has already released three groups of prisoners as part of the peace negotiations that began last July. All had served lengthy terms for attacks on Israelis, and scenes of them being set free and returning to jubilant celebrations have angered the Israeli public.
A fourth group was scheduled to be released on March 29, and the delay had prompted Palestinian authorities to threaten to end the negotiations. Palestinians view the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel as heroes and freedom fighters while Israel considers them terrorists.
Under the emerging deal, the fourth group, including 14 Arab citizens of Israel, would go free.
For the Palestinians, the key element of any extension would be the release of 400 more prisoners. In particular, they seek freedom for the most senior prisoners, led by Marwan Barghouti, a top official in the dominant Fatah movement and a potential heir to President Mahmoud Abbas.
The official familiar with the deal would not say whether Barghouti is included in it, saying only that none of the 400 Palestinians set to be released were convicted of murder or other violent crimes.
The new deal would need approval from Netanyahu's Cabinet, which is not guaranteed. Netanyahu's coalition is dominated by hard-liners who have been extremely critical of the previous Palestinian releases. For them, the emerging deal is especially contentious because it is expected to include convicted murderers and Arab citizens of Israel.