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Israel moots freeing top Palestinian for US spy

Written by: Staff

JERUSALEM, Apr 16 (Reuters) Israel could release a jailed Palestinian uprising leader if Washington grants clemency to Jonathan Pollard, a US Navy analyst convicted of spying for the Jewish state, Israel's Army Radio today said.

It said Israel plans to propose the swap after Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert forms a government.

Israel would hope to convince the Bush administration that freeing Marwan Barghouthi, a senior figure in the once-dominant and pragmatic Fatah movement, would undermine the new Palestinian rule of Islamist group Hamas, Army Radio said.

Barghouthi is serving 5 life sentences in an Israeli prison for masterminding Palestinian militant attacks.

In public, Israeli officials have ruled out his release.

US administrations have been similarly firm on Pollard serving out a life term handed down in the 1980s for treason, despite calls for a pardon from Israel and fellow US Jews.

Israeli and US officials were not immediately available for comment on the Army Radio report.

Israeli government sources said the swap was first proposed in 2004 by aides to then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but was rejected outright by mid-level US officials.

Pollard's wife poured cold water on the radio report, noting 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 further land where Palestinians seek statehood in the occupied West Bank. Israeli ultranationalists see the territories as a Jewish birthright.

BARGHOUTHI POLITICALLY POTENT ''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.'' Barghouthi remains politically active behind bars, struggling to patch up Fatah since it lost to Hamas in Palestinian elections in January -- a major setback to US-led efforts to end more than 5 years of Middle East bloodshed.

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 got 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 for Pollard's release from parliament.

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.


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