Should potential Pollard release be entwined in Mideast peace efforts?


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JUDY WOODRUFF: Joining us now to discuss all these latest developments and the prospects for continuing the talks are Aaron David Miller, a former senior State Department adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations. He’s now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson center. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And David Pollock, a former senior adviser on the Middle East at the State Department, he’s now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Welcome to the NewsHour to all three of you.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University of Maryland: Pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Shibley Telhami, let me start with you.

Why is today Mahmoud Abbas saying that he’s going to go to the U.N. seeking recognition for the Palestinians? Why now? And why are the Israelis so opposed?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Probably two issues.

One issue is that, if you look at it from his point of view and his constituency point of view, he’s being asked to extend the negotiations without getting any results, something he said he wouldn’t do. And he needs to look tough to his constituency.

So, this is an act that actually in some ways makes it easier for him to agree tomorrow or the next day to extend the negotiations. But the second thing is, Palestinians always feel like they’re being taken for granted. Of course, there’s an asymmetry of power that favors Israel, and allows the Israelis to do things (INAUDIBLE) too.

And, in this case, obviously, there was the recent prisoner which had been agreed upon from the beginning. Now, so, it’s interesting. There’s a little symmetry here, because when Secretary Kerry asked both sides to come to the negotiating table, he asked them to make some gestures. The Israelis made the gesture on prisoners. The Palestinians made the gesture on not going to international institutions to essentially file cases on Israel.

That’s sort of — now that the Israelis are not fulfilling the last part of their prisoner release, the Palestinians feel they have that one little lever that they can send a signal that they have something to go back on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aaron David Miller, how do you read what he did today?

AARON DAVID MILLER, Woodrow Wilson International Center For Scholars: You know, nobody ever lost money betting against Arab-Israeli peace.

And the reality is, John Kerry went into a semi-mission impossible, into a process, in essence, where the suspicions between Abbas and Netanyahu were profound, the gaps on all the core issues very deep. And there was an absence of urgency and ownership.

Abbas now finds himself in a position where, not only are the appetizers off the table — that is to say, the fourth tranche of prisoner releases — but the prospects of actually eating the main course, which is a framework agreement by the end of April or even by the end of 2014, seems actually quite, quite dubious.

And my own conviction is, you know, the peace process is like rock and roll. It’s really never — it’s never going to die, but this process right now is coming to a critical moment, because, if people abandon the faith that talking can get them what they want, then the obvious implications and consequences are prohibitive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I should say, coming to — turning to you, David Pollock, Secretary Kerry himself said, after — after President Abbas made this move, he said — he said, it’s completely premature to write off this process. He said the parties are all in touch with each other, they’re going to continue in touch.

But how do you read this particular development by President Abbas?

DAVID POLLOCK, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: I think that it is premature to write it off.

I think they will find a way at the last minute to resuscitate at least the talks, not an agreement, but an agreement to talk. And I think what Abbas is trying to do here is to insist that the preconditions for even sitting down at the table be fulfilled. And I think he is responding to an Israeli decision to delay a prisoner release.

But there’s also a very complicated technical issue about which prisoners exactly will Israel agree to release. The Israelis say that they didn’t agree to release Palestinian citizens of Israel as part of the preconditions for these peace talks. And Abbas is insisting that they do exactly that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying he did this because this is one piece of leverage?

DAVID POLLOCK: I think he’s using it as leverage, but he’s trying to demonstrate that he, too, has an alternative in case the process does fail, not just to get talks started, but to show that there’s a plan B for the Palestinians to go unilaterally to international agencies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excuse me for interrupting.

Let’s talk about another interesting piece in all of this, that — the disclosure a few days ago that — or the understanding that — Shibley Telhami, that the Obama administration is considering the release of Jonathan Pollard.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: That came as…

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read that?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: That came as a surprise to me, in part, because not — every White House has been reluctant to do so for over 20 years.

The national security agencies of the U.S. are opposed to it. They see it as, this is a traitor who has betrayed America, and the U.S. has paid a price. They didn’t want to link him to negotiations in the peace process. I always felt that he could be used as a card, but only when there is a real major crisis, because it’s a big price politically for the president, or at least internally, not so much politically, but more within the national security bureaucracies.

And I think that the fact that they appear to be considering it, maybe even using it, tells you that there was a real crisis. I think it tells you something about how at least Secretary Kerry read the immediate situation there, that he needed to use this particular card now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aaron David Miller, you have written that you think it’s a terrible idea.

AARON DAVID MILLER: I do.

I think that, look, if you’re going to tell me that we’re prepared to release Jonathan Pollard, up — at least up for parole in 2015, for something significant and consequential, we’re going to get an agreement on Jerusalem and borders for releasing Pollard? Fine. Going to get a framework agreement for releasing Pollard? Fine.

At the end of the road, Pollard will be thrown into the deal. The Palestinians will have their own off-the-table benefits that they want. This is something the Israelis want, fine.

But to trade Jonathan Pollard for an extension of the talks or a settlements freeze that will be observed more in the breach than in practice, or for prisoner releases makes absolutely no sense, makes the administration look weak and, frankly, somewhat desperate. I think it’s a bad idea, it’s unwise, it makes America look bad, and it’s not going to advance the peace process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You believe there are no circumstances under which he should be released?

AARON DAVID MILLER: No, I think — look, if the president of the United States makes a judgment that Jonathan Pollard, ill, mentally unwell, having served a long time, wants to be released on humanitarian grounds, let him go ahead and do it.

But don’t conflate Pollard oranges with peace process apples, and undermine the confidence of the intelligence — U.S. intelligence in the process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that, David Pollock?

DAVID POLLOCK: I don’t agree.

I think if there’s a humanitarian reason or a legal reason to release Jonathan Pollard, then it makes sense for the United States to get something for it on top of that and to use this card, which is a wasting asset, because Pollard is eligible for release within the next year or so anyway, and is ill.

So I think it makes sense if the United States has enough legal grounds to do this, if the president decides that it’s OK, after having served so long in prison for a very serious crime. Then we should also play the card for something that’s worth doing, which is preserving the peace talks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to keep the talks going, you would say that was worth it?

DAVID POLLOCK: Absolutely, because I don’t think Netanyahu can do that without this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to comment? And then I want to come back to…

AARON DAVID MILLER: I don’t agree. I think, if you’re going to get something for Pollard, get something consequential and significant.

An extension of talks which have failed to close the gaps on the core issues is simply going to simply prolong the problem that we face, and two or three months from now, the parties will be asking for something else without sufficient progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very brief last comment.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, I think, on this issue, if you are getting a real, total settlement freeze, that’s one thing, because that really would make it possible to have real negotiations.

But if you’re only getting some — quote — “restraint” and obviously settlement goes on, it’s too heavy a price to pay.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, we thank you, all three, Aaron David Miller, Shibley Telhami, and David Pollock.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

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