Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the Middle East in the first week of the new year amid a flurry of reports in the Israeli press that he has said he would consider freeing convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Israel's Channel 10 TV station first reported Friday that Kerry offered to free Pollard as part of an exchange for the release of a fourth group of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails as peace talks resume between the two sides. The third of four groups is scheduled to be released Monday, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst, pleaded guilty to passing national defense information to the Israeli government in 1986 and was sentenced to life in prison the following year.
The Channel 10 report added that the Israeli government believes Pollard is unlikely to be released since Kerry's statement was not approved by President Barack Obama. A source told Fox News that Pollard's release was in play, but it was unclear what price Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be asked to pay for it, or even if Netanyahu would agree to pay it.
Many prominent Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, have called for Pollard's release since his imprisonment. Those calls became louder after recent reports based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA had tracked e-mail accounts belonging to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and former Defense Minister Ehud Barak between 2008 and 2009.
Kerry will arrive in the region amid a series of violent Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets in recent weeks. The attacks are raising concerns about the possibility of a new type of Palestinian uprising. Kerry, who became secretary of state in February, has so far visited Israel nine times.
The recent incidents do not appear to be an organized effort by militant groups, but rather a collection of individual acts.
After years of relative quiet, Israel's Shin Bet security service has reported a steady rise in attacks since Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators resumed talks in July.
In November, for example, there were 167 attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank, compared to 136 in October, the security service said.
The State Department confirmed late Saturday that Kerry will leave Wednesday for Jerusalem to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then go to Ramallah to meet with President Abbas. He will discuss the ongoing, final-status negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, "among other issues," the department said.
Israel and Palestinian officials agree that violence from the West Bank is connected to the peace talks, though they pin the blame on each other. The Palestinians say the current climate is a result of brewing frustrations over the perceived lack of progress in peace talks while Israel continues to build Jewish settlements on land they claim for a future state.
Others link the violence to the release of convicted Palestinian killers as part of the deal to resume talks. This logic goes that Palestinians are emboldened to carry out attacks knowing that they will eventually be freed from prison. A third group of prisoners is expected to be released next week.
On Sunday, a pipe bomb believed to be planted by Palestinian militants exploded on a bus in central Israel in the most serious attack inside Israel in more than a year. The next day, an Israeli policeman was stabbed outside a West Bank settlement. And on Tuesday an Israeli civilian was killed by a Palestinian sniper in a cross-border shooting from Gaza, sparking a series of Israeli air strikes that killed a Palestinian girl.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip, located on opposite sides of Israel, are ruled by different governments. Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority are engaged in peace talks aimed at ending decades of conflict and establishing an independent state for Palestinians. But Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers refuse to recognize Israel and call for its destruction.
The situation in Gaza is far different.
Hamas opposes the peace talks and has engaged in several rounds of heavy fighting with Israel over the years. For the past 13 months, it has observed a cease-fire with Israel. But extremist Salafist groups have carried out periodic attacks in order to undermine the cease-fire. An Israeli blockade and a tough Egyptian crackdown on Gaza’s southern border in recent months have created fuel shortages and economic hardship in Gaza, creating a fertile ground for extremists. Hamas was not involved in Tuesday’s sniper attack.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.