Imprisoned spy may be key for Kerry on peace talks

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Women hold portraits of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails during a rally calling for their release in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Arabic on the posters read, “Dean of prisoners, Karim Younis, 21 years in prison.” (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Women hold portraits of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails during a rally calling for their release in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Arabic on the posters read, “Dean of prisoners, Karim Younis, 21 years in prison.” (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talks during a leadership meeting in Ramallah, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. In a dramatic move that could derail eight months of U.S. peace efforts, President Abbas resumed a Palestinian bid for further U.N. recognition despite a promise to suspend such efforts during nine months of negotiations with Israel. Abbas signed “State of Palestine” applications for 15 U.N. agencies in a hastily convened ceremony after Israel calls off a promised prisoner release. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

FILE – This May 15, 1998 file photo shows Jonathan Pollard speaking during an interview in a conference room at the Federal Correction Institution in Butner, N.C. An AP source says: the US is talking with Israel about early release of Pollard for concessions. (AP Photo/Karl DeBlaker, File)

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JERUSALEM (AP) — In an improbable twist, the fate of an imprisoned American who spied for Israel could now play a big role in rescuing Middle East peace negotiations after a dramatic Palestinian rebuff to Secretary of State John Kerry.

With Kerry’s efforts in tatters, a three-way deal that includes the United States releasing Jonathan Pollard could provide incentives for Israel and the Palestinians to break the deadlock and extend the talks.

But critics say the sudden focus on Pollard has turned attention away from the real issues that need to be addressed to end decades of conflict. And it may have raised the Palestinians’ asking price: They realize that with Israel so eager to free Pollard, they may be able to hold out for broader Israeli concessions.

Palestinian officials, for instance, say they have discussed the possibility of seeking the release of the top Palestinian prisoner held by Israel, Marwan Barghouti, as part of any arrangement involving Pollard. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose internal deliberations, said they have to date been hesitant to raise the issue in connection with Pollard for fear of being seen as meddling in internal American affairs.

Negotiations on a peace deal hit a major snag late Tuesday when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas abruptly renewed a campaign for recognition of the “state of Palestine” in international bodies.

Abbas had promised to suspend the campaign when peace talks resumed in July but angrily reversed course after Israel failed to carry out a promised prisoner release. The move forced Kerry to cancel a planned trip back to the region and threatened to derail the talks completely.

U.S. officials said Kerry spoke with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the day and that negotiators from the sides would meet later Wednesday in Jerusalem.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. was “disappointed by the unhelpful unilateral actions that both parties have taken in recent days.” He said Kerry remains in close touch with negotiating teams, but added that the parties “must take the necessary steps if they want to move forward.”

Palestinian officials said Wednesday they had no desire to quit the negotiations.

“We hope that Kerry renews his efforts in the coming days,” Yasser Abed Rabbo, a top Palestinian official, said in the West Bank town of Ramallah. “We don’t want his mission to fail.”

Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour, who delivered copies of the recognition documents to U.N. officials Wednesday, expressed a “willingness and a readiness to continue engaging in the political process.”

Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst convicted of handing reams of classified documents to Israel in the 1980s, could play a key role in that mission.

Pollard, who is 59 and said to be in poor health, became an unlikely part of the negotiations this week when U.S. officials acknowledged they were considering releasing him as part of a package to extend talks beyond the current April 29 deadline.

The admission marked a dramatic turnaround for the U.S. and reflected Kerry’s sense of urgency. After more than 10 trips to the region and numerous phone calls with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Kerry has a great personal stake in keeping his efforts afloat.

A person involved in the talks said Tuesday that Pollard was the centerpiece of an emerging plan to extend talks through the end of the year.

In return, Israel would carry out a promised release of some 30 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, commit to the release of an additional 400 prisoners, and impose a partial freeze on settlement construction on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians.

That arrangement was thrown into doubt after Abbas’ speech Tuesday night. As the parties speak in the coming days, Pollard’s fate will likely return to the agenda, since his release could deliver something valuable for all sides.

Pollard, a Jewish American who has been granted Israeli citizenship, is widely seen in Israel as a martyr who has been excessively punished. Images of Netanyahu welcoming him home for Passover — the Jewish holiday of liberation from bondage in ancient Egypt — would give the Israeli leader a tremendous public boost.

Pollard’s return would also make it far easier for Netanyahu to win approval for concessions to the Palestinians inside his hard-line coalition.

“This chip of Pollard … is an excellent idea. It allows Netanyahu to deal with his domestic front,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.

For this reason, hard-line members of his government have spoken out against the emerging deal.

Netanyahu’s powerful foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Wednesday he would vote against any additional release of Palestinian prisoners. His

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