The satirical newspaper The Onion published a mock report about what US
President Barack Obama really told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when
Netanyahu greeted him at Ben-Gurion Airport Wednesday.
“This is a
completely pointless visit and a waste of everyone’s time,” Obama told Netanyahu
as they smiled broadly and waved to the gathered crowd, according to the
satirical newspaper. “You won’t do what I want when it comes to stopping Israeli
settlements, and I can’t do what you want in terms of dismissing Palestine. Now,
pretend to laugh at what I just said so it appears like we get
The report was published when it looked like Obama and Netanyahu
would remain at loggerheads and have yet another confrontation that would make
them both look bad.
But the two put on what was at the very least a good
show of getting along by two people who were unable to succeed in even faking it
in the past.
They made a point of calling each other Barack and Bibi,
they made jokes about their children’s resemblance to their wives and Obama
touched Netanyahu by quoting from letters the prime minister’s fallen brother,
Yoni, had once written home about strength, justice and staunch resolution being
on Israel’s side.
When an NBC reporter referred indirectly to polls in
The Jerusalem Post
that indicated that Israelis have not embraced Obama the way
they embraced America’s last two presidents, Netanyahu said “I think that people
should get to know President Obama the way I’ve gotten to know him.”
differences between the two leaders on key issues were not denied.
Iran, Netanyahu believes a military threat is necessary in order to avoid
military action, while Obama wants to continue a diplomatic process that has not
succeeded. There are steps Obama would like Israel to take on the Palestinian
track that Netanyahu does not want to take.
And on settlements, well,
just for fun, do a search on that word in the online transcript of their
Jerusalem press conference. There are 5,870 words. “Settlements” is not one of
THE ONE issue in which the differences between Netanyahu and Obama
appears most stark is the fate of Israeli agent Jonathan
Pollard. Netanyahu would like Obama to commute Pollard’s life sentence to
the more than 27 years he has served.
This is what Obama had to say about
Pollard in an interview with Channel 2 last Thursday: “This is an individual who
committed a very serious crime here in the United States. He has been serving
his time. There is a justice system that allows for periodic review of
his sentence and the potential for him ultimately being released; and the way,
you know, I as president function here is to try and make sure that I am
following the basic rules of that review.
“I have no plans for releasing
Jonathan Pollard immediately, but what I am going to be doing is to make sure
that he, like every other American who has been sentenced, is accorded the same
kinds of review and the same examination of the equities that any other
individual would provide. I recognize the emotions involved in this. One of the
strengths of the Israeli people is that you think about your people wherever
they are. And I recognize that. I am sympathetic.
“I think that people have to understand that as the president, my first
obligation is to observe the law here in the US and to make sure that it is
applied consistently. As you know that there are a lot of individuals in
prisons in the United States who have committed crimes who would love to be
released early as well. I’ve got to make sure that every individual is treated
fairly and equal.”
There are three main problems with what Obama said
about Pollard, which Netanyahu might have pointed out if he was not doing his
best to get along with the president.
The first is that Pollard is
suffering from failing health and multiple ailments that require urgent medical
treatment and proper nutrition, neither of which are available to him in prison.
Should Pollard die in prison under Obama’s watch, it would deal a devastating
blow to the president’s goal of improving his image among
“Every day that he survives now is miraculous,” Pollard’s wife,
Esther, said. “He is 58 but he is the physical equivalent of a 70- or 80-
year-old because he went though seven years of solitary confinement, each of
which is the equivalent of multiple years because of the harsh conditions and
The second problem is that the “periodic review” Obama referred
to is a parole procedure that, due to key legal reasons, does not apply to
Pollard. Assuming he lives until then, Pollard is technically eligible to
request parole in November 2015, on the 30th anniversary of his
But parole is not relevant for Pollard because his judge, his
prosecutor and the government are on record in his sentencing docket as
emphatically denying early release at any date, making it certain he will be
Pollard’s lawyers would not be able to effectively contest those
recommendations because they have been prevented from seeing the classified
portions of his sentencing file. The lawyers received beyond top secret
clearance from the government for the purpose of seeing the file and then they
were not permitted to see it because a court ruled that they lacked a "need to
The lawyers even asked to see the file while being monitored and
without taking notes and were told no. They went all the way to the Supreme
Court to get the right to view the documents, which have been seen by many
people who oppose Pollard’s release. But the Supreme Court refused to hear the
case, leaving Pollard no legal redress other than a commuting of his sentence by
If parole would be turned down and the case set aside, it
would not be revisited again for 10 or 15 years. It would be hard for a
president to go against that kind of recommendation and grant clemency to a
prisoner whose case was set aside by the parole commission.
Due to a plea
bargain that Pollard signed to avoid a life sentence, but which was not honored
by the prosecution, he did not have a trial. Because of mistakes made by his
lawyers without his knowledge, he did not have an appeal. The merits of his case
have never been heard in court.
The final problem with what Obama said
about Pollard is that the parole system was never intended to address an unjust
sentence – just good behavior. Parole lets sentences stand but allows for early
If the government decides to rearrest a paroled prisoner again
for any reason, it may do so and reimprison him for the full term of his
original sentence. Due to the laws at the time of Pollard’s sentencing, his life
sentence is for 45 years, which would end in 2030 when he would be 70 years
There are also conditions for parole, which usually include staying
in the US where prisoners can be monitored and subjected to regular review.
These would prevent Pollard from moving to Israel and starting a new
Former CIA director R. James Woolsey suggested that Pollard’s
sentence was unjust in an interview with America’s National Public Radio on
Wednesday. He noted that America has caught several spies for friendly
countries, including spies for Greece, South Korea and the Philippines, and
sentenced them to four to seven years.
“I really take the view now that
if someone says he should not be released after 28 years, just pretend that he’s
a Filipino-American or a Greek-American and pardon him,” Woolsey said. “I see no
reason why people should treat a Jewish- American who spied for Israel on those
grounds more harshly than they treat a Filipino-American who spied for the
Philippines or a South Korean-American who spied for South
Pollard used every available avenue in the justice system to
which Obama referred, and none of them have addressed the lack of proportion
Woolsey pointed out.
The only remaining avenue is the request for
executive clemency that Pollard filed three years ago, which Netanyahu and
President Shimon Peres endorsed.
Peres, who reportedly gave Obama a
petition for Pollard’s freedom signed by more than 200,000 Israelis, and
Netanyahu are not going to complain publicly about what Obama said about Pollard
because they desperately want to get along with the US leader.
Obama hopes to permanently improve his image in Israel, Pollard arriving at
Ben-Gurion Airport would likely make more of an impression on Israelis than the
president’s own positive visit to Israel.