JERUSALEM -- The Obama administration is considering the early release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of an effort to keep U.S.-backed peace talks from collapsing, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.
The acknowledgment came as Secretary of State John F. Kerry made an abrupt detour to the region as a standoff between Israel and the Palestinians has left negotiations in deep peril.
Pollard's release would be an enormous prize for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, providing President Barack Obama with a significant chit in the U.S.-led effort to create an independent Palestinian state.
The Obama administration, like Republican and Democratic administrations before it, has publicly resisted strong Israeli lobbying to lighten Pollard's sentence for spying for a friendly country. But Pollard's fate was always presumed to be a potential element of any U.S.-backed solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Kerry, along with U.S. mediator Martin Indyk, met for four hours Monday night with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, postponing a late-night meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He instead met with the Palestinian chief negotiator.
The main point of Mr. Kerry's emergency visit was how to extend peace talks after an impasse over the overdue release of Palestinian prisoners. But the separate question of Pollard's fate, and what his release might buy for Israel and the United States, hung over the meetings.
A U.S. official said Pollard's early release is under discussion, but no decision has been made. The official requested anonymity to discuss ongoing internal debate over a politically sensitive issue. A senior Israeli government official confirmed that the Israelis were seeking Pollard's early release as part of negotiations on extending peace talks.
Release now would probably require a grant of clemency from Mr. Obama, but the White House could also recommend an early release late next year, when Pollard becomes eligible for it. The political question for the White House is whether to spend the chit now, later -- in what is expected to be a drawn-out peace negotiation -- or at all.
Pollard, 59, was a U.S. Navy civilian intelligence analyst who was arrested in 1985 after providing classified information to Israeli agents. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to life in prison and is eligible for release in November 2015. He has served almost 29 years.
Pollard has supporters in Israel across the political spectrum, from old leftists to ultra-nationalists. In 2002, when he was out of office, Mr. Netanyahu visited Pollard in prison.
Israeli backers say Pollard's sentence was unduly harsh, and that a defendant convicted of the same crime today would get a maximum of 10 years. The Israelis also note that he was spying not for an enemy state, but for a U.S. ally. Pollard was awarded Israeli citizenship in 1995.
Clemency has eluded Pollard for five administrations so far. During the 1998 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Wye River, Md, Mr. Netanyahu pushed for Pollard's early release. Then-President Bill Clinton later wrote in his memoirs: "For all the sympathy Pollard generated in Israel, he was a hard case to push in America; he had sold our country's secrets for money, not conviction, and for years had not shown any remorse."
U.S. diplomats have pressed the two sides to move beyond side issues such as Pollard and Palestinian prisoners and focus on issues such as borders and security arrangements to allow for two states for two peoples.
"Israelis and Palestinians have both made tough choices, and as we work with them to determine the next steps, it is important they remember that only peace will bring the Israeli and Palestinian people both the security and economic prosperity they all deserve," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
Mr. Netanyahu has refused to carry out the scheduled weekend release of some two dozen Palestinian prisoners. Mr. Abbas has threatened to quit the talks with just a month before Mr. Kerry's deadline for a peace deal outline.