Jonathan Pollard To Be Freed As Part Of Middle East Peace Deal?
Reports are starting to circulate that the United States may consider releasing Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel nearly 30 years ago, may be released and sent to Israel as part of an effort by the Obama Administration to get Israel to the table for a Middle East peace deal:
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is discussing the release of an American convicted of spying for Israel more than a quarter of a century ago, American officials said Monday, as it struggles to avert a collapse in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Israeli government has long sought the release of the spy, Jonathan J. Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst, who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for passing classified documents to his Israeli handlers. But the United States has steadfastly refused, in part because of the vehement opposition of the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Now, however, freeing Mr. Pollard is again on the table, as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jerusalem on Monday for urgent talks to try to resolve a dispute over Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners. That dispute is the latest roadblock to high-stakes peace talks that began last summer but appear to have made little progress and now face an April 29 deadline.
No decision has been made yet on Mr. Pollard, said one official, who asked not to be identified because the person was discussing private deliberations. A decision to release Mr. Pollard would be in the context of a broader agreement to extend the talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, officials said, and would require President Obama’s approval.
But time and politics have coalesced to make his release more plausible. Intelligence officials are no longer likely to object as fiercely to freeing Mr. Pollard, who is 59, said to be ailing and eligible for parole in November 2015. And his release could provide the Obama administration with a way to coax additional concessions from Israel as it pursues a broader peace accord, which Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama have made a centerpiece of their diplomacy.
Some analysts questioned the wisdom of giving up one of the few leverage points the United States has when it is not clear it would gain more than an extension in the talks, much less a full-blown agreement. Mr. Pollard is a reviled figure in intelligence circles, seen as a prolific spy who betrayed his country and damaged national security.
“I think it shows real desperation,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator and now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“In an era of leaks and surveillance and Snowden, the idea that the administration is going to trade Jonathan Pollard makes absolutely no sense,” he said, referring to the leaker and former N.S.A. contractor Edward J. Snowden.
The Pollard case has been a sore spot in Israeli-U.S. relations for decades now. Israelis, and apparently some supporters of Israel here in the United States, believe that Pollard was unfairly singled out and that his sentence was far harsher than justified by the facts. Indeed, as Adam Taylor notes, some Pollard supporters argue that he really didn’t break the law at all:
A Web site dedicated to documenting his case for supporters argues that Pollard was simply breaking past an informal embargo that some U.S. officials had put on sharing intelligence with Israel. Another argument was made in a recent legal analysis published in the Jerusalem Post that found Pollard’s sentencing was too harsh, pointing out that Pollard had cooperated with the investigation and accepted a plea deal that saw the prosecution not ask for a life sentence (the judge in the case ordered it anyway). Mordechai Kremnitzer, a vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, also pointed out that other Americans convicted of spying had received far more lenient sentences.
For some Israelis, the idea that a Jewish American could be sentenced so harshly for service to Israel is horrifying, and there have been a number of campaigns to free Pollard. Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 after a request from his lawyer, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played a specific role in support for Pollard, admitting that Pollard was an Israeli source in 1998 (though it has also been denied) and visiting him in prison in 2002 while he was not in office.
At the same time, the American intelligence and law enforcement communities have argued strongly against clemency of any kind for Pollard from the time that he was first arrested during the Reagan Administration. At the time, former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger reportedly argued in a sentencing report that Pollard had been among the most damaging spies in recent American history. Additionally, over the years, intelligence officials from both sides of the aisle have argued strongly against releasing Pollard:
Many in the U.S. intelligence community feel strongly that Pollard should not be released: In 1998 George J. Tenet, then director of the CIA, apparently scuppered a deal with Israel on Pollard by threatening to resign if the spy went free.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post written in 1998, former past directors of Naval Intelligence, William Studeman, Sumner Shapiro, John L. Butts and Thomas Brooks, argued that as Pollard’s case never went to trial (due to his plea deal) it never became public that Pollard “offered classified information to three other countries before working for the Israelis and that he offered his services to a fourth country while he was spying for Israel.” The op-ed also argued that the “sheer volume” of documents passed on by Pollard was almost unrivaled, and his support was only due to a “clever public relations campaign.”
Even now, while his supporters portray Pollard as a ideologue, other critics in the United States point to reports of his drug abuse and history of grandiose lies.
On the whole, it strikes me that the arguments against Pollard’s release are far stronger than any of the arguments in favor of it even at this point. Regardless of the fact that he was spying for a purported ally, the fact remains that Pollard was a spy and, at least according to some accounts, the information that he made available to Israeli intelligence were particularly damaging to the United States given the fact that Israel apparently used some of this information to trade with the Soviets for the safe escape of Jews living in the Soviet Union. More importantly, at no time has Pollard expressed any apparent remorse for his actions and, indeed, most of the arguments that his supporters make on his behalf involve attempting to justify what he did, or dismiss its seriousness, rather than pointing out why he should be eligible for clemency of some time this long after his conviction. Since there’s no question that Pollard is in fact guilty of what he was charged with and convicted of, the lack of remorse and the continued effort by Pollard and his supporters to justify his crimes are both strong arguments against granting him clemency of any kind.
More broadly, one wonders what a report like this actually means for the Middle East “peace process.” Like pretty much every President before him since Richard Nixon, it appears that Barack Obama and his Secretary of State have decided to take it upon themselves to try to bring about a comprehensive Middle East peace deal. In some cases, most notably President Carter and the Camp David Accords and President Clinton’s efforts that eventually led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, those efforts have met with some success, but when that has happened it has only been because both of the principles involved wanted to reach a deal even if they were reluctant at the beginning. This time around, we have a leader of the Palestinian Authority who has explicitly refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, a Gaza Strip controlled by a terrorist organization that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist at all, and an Israeli government that has been eternally stubborn even on issues as simple as halting settlement construction. The only way these three parties will ever come to an agreement is if they want to, releasing a spy from the 80’s isn’t going to accomplish anything.
Let me be clear: If we were on the brink of a true global settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, it would be entirely reasonable to release Pollard as a sweetener to mollify Israeli opinion. He’s already served almost thirty years in prison and is actually up for possible parole in 2015. But more specifically, spying is inherently political between states. And spies are frequently swapped as parts of larger political bargains. Given all the US interests in getting a peace deal in Israel/Palestine, it would be a no-brainer if releasing him could provide the final nudge to get the job done.
But to everyone’s great misfortune – and my personal disillusion and sadness – the two sides are not even remotely close to any sort of agreement. They are having desultory negotiations about what the terms of negotiations might be. Figuratively, if not literally, they’re arguing over the shape of the negotiating table. And the Netanyahu government has gone to every length to sabotage the negotiations, going so far – in breach of every protocol vis a vis its great power protector – as to allow his government’s ministers to repeatedly castigate and insult the US’s negotiator, Secretary of State John Kerry.
Pollard should be a chit. As I said, he’s served almost all of his minimum sentence. And it’s entirely reasonable to free even the worst of spies to secure critical US interests. This is certainly one. But here we seem even to be considering offering this prize in exchange for inconsequential concessions which can easily be taken back once Pollard is in Israel. (Pollard was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995.)
I agree with Marshall. The Israelis obviously have great interest in Pollard’s welfare, largely due to the fact that the Israeli public does.If we’re going to give him up, it should be for something far more valuable to Israel than what is currently on the table, which is essentially that Israel would release 400 Palestinians currently held in Israeli prisons.