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For weeks, the fate of the continuing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has hinged on the extension of the moratorium on new settlements in the West Bank.  But as the New York Times is now reporting, that extension may have less to do with any deal Prime Minister Netanyahu reaches with President Abbas than with Israeli extortion of the United States.  Abbas will get his extension, the Times suggested, if the United States releases the convicted American spy for Israel, Jonathan Pollard.

Earlier this month, President Obama asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to keep the moratorium in place to prevent a break-down of the nascent talks.  Just last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed that line, arguing:

"Where we sit now it would be useful for some extension, it would be extremely useful, and I don't think a limited extension would undermine the process going forward if there were a decision agreed to by both parties that, 'Look, this is it, this is our last effort to try to do this.'"

In response, Netanyahu's "hint of flexibility" appears to violate his past declaration to U.S. diplomats that "You live in Chevy Chase; don't play with our future."  According to the New York Times, it is Netanyahu who may now playing games with the United States:

Israeli officials have tried to float a trade-off in which they would extend the temporary moratorium on settlement construction in exchange for the release by the United States of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the American who pleaded guilty to spying for Israel and is serving a life term in an American jail, Israel's Army Radio reported Monday.

The idea would be that the exchange might help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to sell an extension of the partial settlement freeze on the West Bank to his rightist ministers, the radio said. The moratorium is due to expire on Sunday, and Palestinian leaders have threatened to halt the fledgling American-sponsored peace talks with the Israelis if construction resumes.

As the Times and Politico also reported, this is not the first time Bibi has tried this gambit to free Pollard, who was jailed for life in 1984.  While "several American presidents have refused previous Israeli requests to commute his sentence," the Times recalled that:

Mr. Netanyahu made Mr. Pollard's case a bargaining point in negotiations with the Palestinians in 1998, during his first term as prime minister. Mr. Netanyahu told President Bill Clinton that he needed Mr. Pollard's release to win support for a peace agreement, senior American officials said at the time.

Former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Aaron Miller described Netanyahu's past willingness to haggle on the right-wing vision of Eretz Israel in exchange for Pollard's freedom:

"Netanyahu tried this at Wye river -- Pollard's release for doing the interim deal with the Palestinians," Miller said by e-mail. Then U.S. President Bill "Clinton was wavering. [Then CIA director] George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard was released. The issue went the way of the dodo; but it always turns up in some form like a bad penny."

As Yossi Melman of Ha'aretz wrote at the time:

Desperate to sweeten a peace agreement that is distasteful to his ultraright constituency, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have outsmarted himself: at the last minute on Friday, Israel demanded that President Clinton release Jonathan Pollard, the American naval aide who was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for spying on behalf of Israel.

For the Clinton Administration it was an ugly ultimatum. For Mr. Netanyahu, it must have seemed a good opportunity to squeeze a weakened President who reportedly wanted the photo-op of a signing ceremony at the White House very badly. But all Mr. Netanyahu got was a promise that Mr. Clinton would review the case, and it is possible the gambit set back efforts to free the spy.

It didn't work then, and it shouldn't work now.  In 1993, new Defense Secretary Les Aspin warned that even from prison Pollard "has continued to release classified information."  As the New York Times recalled, "Mr. Aspin argued in a judgment similar to one by Caspar W. Weinberger when he was Secretary of Defense for President Ronald Reagan during Mr. Pollard's trial, the information provided to the Israelis did grave damage to American national security."

At the end of the day, Benjamin Netanyahu will have to decide whether or not to trade land for peace.  For its part, the United States, which already sends Israel over $3 billion in aid annually, shouldn't yield to his blackmail and give up a spy just to buy time while Bibi makes up his mind.

** Crossposted at Perrspectives **

Originally posted to Jon Perr on Tue Sep 21, 2010 at 09:46 AM PDT.

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