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Jonathan Pollard To Be Freed As Part Of Middle East Peace Deal?

Jonathan Pollard

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.

Update: In the comments, Moosebreath links to this piece by Josh Marshall:

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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Color me skeptical. As to,

    we have a leader of the Palestinian Authority who has explicitly refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,

    (my em)

    Wouldn’t recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ risk the disenfranchising of the millions (???, # pulled from my a$$) of Arab Israelis? Hard for me to fault him for that. As to Netanyahu, the occupied territories, aren’t.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  2. PD Shaw says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The original U.N. resolution, called for the partition of the British Palestinian mandate into an Arab state and a Jewish state. Its short-hand for two-state solution.

    I think the Palestinians don’t want to recognize a Jewish state, because they don’t want to compromise the right of return.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  3. Moosebreath says:

    I tend to agree with Josh Marshall’s take:

    “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.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I don’t really care whether Pollard is released at this point. I don’t think the sentence served is to be laughed at, or would encourage other lawbreakers. I really don’t see how it would help talks though.

    [Edit: I agree with Josh Marshall]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I think the Palestinians don’t want to recognize a Jewish state, because they don’t want to compromise the right of return.

    Ah, could be. I know the right of return is important to them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. gVOR08 says:

    Insufficient information. If we get some valuable, enforceable quid pro quo for Pollard, great. If he’s just a sweetener in a vain effort to buy Netanyahu’s good will, forget it.

    Meanwhile, I don’t think it’s terribly helpful to the cause of peace that Chris Christie is publicly forced to do penance for calling the Occupied Territories the Occupied Territories in front of a very influential political donor. It encourages Netanyahu to believe AIPAC and Adelson will provide him cover for taking a hard line.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  7. Mr. Prosser says:

    Kevin Drum summed it up quite well at Mother Jones, in my opinion. “Sadly, this is apparently not an April Fools joke. But I think it’s safe to say that in return for Pollard’s release, Netanyahu will “continue” negotiations, “partially” freeze West Bank settlements—i.e., not freeze them at all—and release a bunch of Palestinian prisoners he had already agreed to release. What a con”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  8. Andre Kenji says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: There are millions of Arab Israelis. They risk surpassing the Jewish population in some years.

    That´s more complications than that, in part because in practice Gaza is a larga prision where it´s impossible to have any kind of economic activity(Worse, Sinai in neighboring Egypt is also a large economic basketcase) and the West Bank is a landlocked place with little access to water.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  9. mantis says:

    Worst ally ever.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  10. C. Clavin says:

    Your boy Christie was against this…but then he apologized.
    Again.
    America has a serious Israel problem.
    Perhaps there is a 12 step program???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. Just Me says:

    Not at all in favor of releasing Pollard.

    Using him to get Israel to the table guarantees nothing of value. Both parties coming to the table doesn’t mean they will reach a deal or that either side will follow through on any deal made.

    Just seems a waste and it isn’t like Pollard is innocent-he was spying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  12. grumpy realist says:

    Considering what we did to the Rosenbergs (and particularly Mrs. Rosenberg, who everyone agreed was simply swept into the affair), I’m surprised we didn’t take Pollard out and shoot him. I would have.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  13. Rob in CT says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Yeah, I agree with that as well. If that’s what it took to get across the goal line, fine. But we’re nowhere near the goal line. We’re not even on the field.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. dazedandconfused says:

    Bibi refers to it as “Sumaria” and “Greater Israel” these days. Their toadies here made Chris Christie choose between making a public apology and circumcision just a couple of days ago.

    It’s Israel, they simply haven’t chased enough of the inhabitants out to allow democracy in that part of it yet.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Andre Kenji: I am wondering specifically about the Arabs in Israel proper. They are Israeli citizens… kind of…??? The question of “How Jewish can Israel be if the majority is Arab?” has been raised from time to time, and is one of the justifications for the 2 state solution. The complexities are way beyond my browsing. I know just enough to say something really stupid.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    1-) Arab Israelis are Israeli Citizens, more or less like Kurds are Turkish citizens. Many of them have problems with the Shin Bet.
    http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/aljazeeraworld/2013/10/inside-shin-bet-20131020112634404283.html

    2-) I think that the problem of the Two State solution is that neither Gaza nor the West Bank are viable as independent states. One solution would be to merge the West Bank with Jordan, but merging Gaza with Egypt wouldn´t be a solution.

    3-) I don´t think that we need Jewish States. Not more than we need Christian nor Muslim States. Religion is one thing, National Identity another.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. Ron Beasley says:

    @mantis: Israel in not an ally but at best a client state.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  18. stonetools says:

    The current Middle East peace negotiations are a complete waste of time involving people who don’t even want to negotiate. John Kerry (with dreams of Nobel Prizes no doubt dancing in his head) was a fool to even begin them.
    Let him refocus his attention on negotiations with countries that actually matter, like Russia and China, and forget that bunch of morons posturing and arguing over a piece of Middle Eastern desert.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. But more specifically, spying is inherently political between states. And spies are frequently swapped as parts of larger political bargains.

    Absolute bullshit, intelligence officers are often exchanged, agents aren’t. I.e., the person who recruits spies, whois almost always a citizen of the rival country are exchanged, the traitorous sons of bitches who give up information aren’t.

    In fact, the last time the United States exchanged spies, it took exchanging ten Russian intelligence officers (including “Anna Chapman”) to get just three agents we had recruited released.

    The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu would make this a precondition shows how out of control he is.

    Biden was quoted in 2011 as having said, “President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time. If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.’” He later denied using those exact words, but stated that was his opinion; hopefully, he holds firm.

    In addition, this is what four Directors of Naval Intelligence, William Studeman, Sumner Shapiro, John L. Butts, and Thomas Brooks had to say:

    We… feel obligated to go on record with the facts regarding Pollard in order to dispel the myths that have arisen from this clever public relations campaign… aimed at transforming Pollard from greedy, arrogant betrayer of the American national trust into Pollard, committed Israeli patriot.

    Pollard pleaded guilty and therefore never was publicly tried. Thus, the American people never came to know that he 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. They also never came to understand that he was being highly paid for his services….

    Pollard and his apologists argue he turned over to the Israelis information they were being denied that was critical to their security. The fact is, however, Pollard had no way of knowing what the Israeli government was already receiving by way of official intelligence exchange agreements…. Some of the data he compromised had nothing to do with Israeli security or even with the Middle East. He betrayed worldwide intelligence data, including sources and methods developed at significant cost to the U.S. taxpayer. As a result of his perfidy, some of those sources are lost forever

    … Another claim Pollard made is that the U.S. government reneged on its bargain not to seek the life sentence. What is not heard is that Pollard’s part of the bargain was to cooperate fully in an assessment of the damage he had done and to refrain from talking to the press prior to the completion of his sentencing. He blatantly and contemptuously failed to live up to either part of the plea agreement…. It was this coupled with the magnitude and consequences of his criminal actions that resulted in the judge imposing a life sentence…. The appellate court subsequently upheld the life sentence.

    If, as Pollard and his supporters claim, he has “suffered enough” for his crimes, he is free to apply for parole as the American judicial system provides. In his arrogance, he has refused to do so, but insists on being granted clemency or a pardon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  20. dazedandconfused says:

    I suspect this is just their way to tell Kerry to “go away”, but the ol’ African or European Swallow bit wasn’t suitable. “What about Pollard?” is a better red herring to throw out there so the press doesn’t have to talk about settlements.

    We will know the Israelis are serious about getting him back when the offer to reveal who in the US intelligence community gave them the key which enabled them to give Pollard a “shopping list” of file numbers in exchange for his release. That would not be something they would be eager to have the press talking about, for sure.

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