JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel could release jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouthi if Washington grants clemency to a U.S. Navy analyst convicted of spying for the Jewish state in the 1980s, Israel’s Army Radio said on Sunday.
It said Israel plans to propose the swap for Jonathan Pollard once acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is sworn in.
Israel would hope to convince the Bush administration that freeing Barghouthi, a senior figure in the once-dominant and pragmatic Fatah movement, would weaken the new Palestinian government under Islamist group Hamas, Army Radio said.
Barghouthi is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for masterminding Palestinian militant attacks. In public, Israeli officials have ruled out his release.
U.S. administrations have been similarly firm on Pollard serving out a life term handed down for treason, despite calls for a pardon from Israel and fellow U.S. Jews.
Israeli government officials denied the Army Radio report, which cited sources in the Prime Minister’s office and has proven authoritative in the past. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv dismissed it as “speculation.”
“The Pollard case is over. He is serving a sentence,” said spokesman Stewart Tuttle. “As for Barghouthi, that is something for the Israelis to decide.”
Israeli political sources said such a swap was first proposed in 2004 by aides to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but was rejected outright by mid-level U.S. officials.
Pollard’s wife, Esther, noted that clemency for her husband had been floated in the past when the Israeli government needed to rally right-wing support.
Olmert, who succeeded Sharon as head of the centrist Kadima Party in March general elections, plans to follow up last year’s Gaza withdrawal by pulling back from some land where Palestinians seek statehood in the occupied West Bank. Israeli ultranationalists see the territories as a Jewish birthright.
“Every time the government wants to push this or that initiative, suddenly they bring up Pollard’s name,” Esther Pollard, who lives in Israel, told Army Radio.
“This is all about Barghouthi, not Pollard. They want to free Barghouthi,” she said. “Barghouthi will go free and Jonathan will stay in prison.”
Long touted as successor to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Barghouthi remains politically active behind bars. He has struggled to shore up Fatah since Hamas beat it in Palestinian elections in January — a major setback to U.S.-led efforts to stem more than five years of Middle East bloodshed.
His wife, Fadwa, also voiced scepticism about a swap.
“This is perhaps the fourth time I have heard such rumours,” she told Reuters, but added that releasing Barghouthi and other Palestinian prisoners would offer “a political breakthrough.”
Calls for Israel to lobby for Pollard’s release have mounted since his former handler in the Lakam industrial espionage unit, Rafael Eitan, made a strong showing in last month’s Israeli general elections at the head of a pensioners’ party.
Pollard was arrested in 1985 outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington and sentenced for selling tens of thousands of pages of classified information to Israel. His supporters say it was information Israel should have received from the United States.
Eitan, who took sole responsibility for the Pollard affair, is expected to be offered a cabinet portfolio by Olmert. He has pledged to campaign in parliament for Pollard’s release.
Pollard accuses Eitan of forsaking him and has vowed through his lawyers to contest any such appointment in Israel’s High Court and publish new information “damaging” to the ex-spymaster and the government. Eitan declined comment.