Palestinian UN Statehood Push Threatens Mideast Talks

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Talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority appear to be hanging by thread again after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled his visit there scheduled for Wednesday. 

Washington shelved the visit following Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to petition the United Nations for membership in 15 international conventions, a unilateral step toward statehood he had promised to suspend as a condition for ongoing talks with Israel.

A crowd of Palestinians played music and celebrated the move by Abbas Tuesday evening in Bethlehem.

Some of the celebrants chanted "To Jerusalem we are going as martyrs in the millions," to support Abbas's defiance following Israel's delay in releasing more than 100 Palestinian prisoners held since before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, most of them on murder charges.

Israel has already freed scores of prisoners since last July as part of a deal to resume the talks.

The Palestinian leader's action represents a setback for the Obama administration, which has been pushing hard for completing a framework for agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Another complicating factor is the status of U.S. prisoner Jonathan Pollard, convicted nearly 30 years ago of spying on the United States on behalf of Israel.

The White House has steadfastly refused to release Pollard, as have previous presidents, despite frequent requests by Israel over the years.

Should the release of Jonathan Pollard be a part of this peace talk deal? Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, answers this and more on CBN Newswatch, April 2.

But last week, the administration floated the idea of freeing him to keep the Middle East talks going.

The decision to link Pollard's status with the peace talks and with the release of Palestinians charged with murder has divided Israelis and angered many.

"I think it is a cynical move by Secretary Kerry and by our prime minister to put Pollard on the table," Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon said.

Danon threatened to resign if Netanyahu proceeds with the Palestinian prisoner release. He described the country's mood over Pollard as a bittersweet feeling.

"We want to see Jonathan Pollard coming back home after 29 years in jail," Danon said. "But at the same time, we cannot accept this agreement. We cannot release hundreds of murderers who were convicted of murdering Jewish people."

Many Israelis wonder how the United States could imprison Pollard for decades for giving information to an ally, while at the same time demanding that Israel release hundreds of people charged with murder as part of a peace deal.

Pollard himself has opposed Palestinian prisoner releases. He is in very poor health and is being held in a federal prison in North Carolina.

His ex-wife, Anne, now living in Israel, would like to see him freed despite the high cost to Israel.

"I pray, pray that the Israeli government right now, that Bibi Netanyahu and his security cabinet will do all in its power to make sure that Jonathan Pollard is released now," she said. "Because I am so afraid for his health right now and I really, truly--I have no idea how he has lasted this long and I have no idea how much longer he could last."

The Palestinians claim they haven't given up on the peace talks. But the ratcheting up of their diplomatic battle against Israel in the United Nations is not welcome in Jerusalem or Washington.

Secretary Kerry was reduced Tuesday to the most basic diplomatic plea, saying, "We urge both sides to show restraint while we work with them."

The questions for Prime Minister Netanyahu is whether he will submit to what some Israelis call U.S. blackmail: Freedom for Pollard in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoner and still more talks with Abbas.

It is a deal that has the potential to shake up the prime minister's government.

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John Waage

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John Waage has covered politics and analyzed elections for CBN News since 1980, including primaries, conventions, and general elections. 

He also analyzes the convulsive politics of the Middle East.