Next month, convicted Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard will begin his 27th year in
prison, and the Obama administration is displaying stunning insensitivity to
what this means for the American Jewish community.
Pollard was arrested
in 1985 for transferring classified documents to Israel during his service at US
Naval Intelligence. In 1987, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his
Pollard’s sentence contradicted his plea bargain agreement. It was
based, among other things, on an impact assessment report of his crimes that was
authored by CIA officer Aldrich Ames. At the time of Pollard’s arrest, Ames had
been spying for the Soviet Union for two years.
Ames was arrested for
espionage in 1994. He was responsible for the deaths of at least 10 agents
working for US intelligence in the USSR.
Ames reportedly blamed Pollard
for some of the agent deaths caused by his own espionage.
sentence was grossly disproportionate to the sentences routinely given to
offenders who transfer classified information to US-allied governments. The
median sentence for such crimes is two years in prison.
Until last year,
there was a longstanding consensus in the US political and intelligence
communities opposed to granting clemency to Pollard.
evaporated last year. In late 2010, US President Barack Obama received letters
recommending commutation of Pollard’s sentence to time served from former CIA
director R. James Woolsey, and from retired senator Dennis DeConcini, who
served as the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the
time of Pollard’s arrest and sentencing.
Obama received similar letters
from former secretaries of state George Schultz and Henry Kissinger. He received
requests for commutation from Sen. John McCain and former attorney-general
Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant defense secretary
under Caspar Weinberger, has spearheaded the effort to release Pollard. Korb has
stated categorically that Pollard’s harsh sentence was the result of
Weinberger’s antipathy for Jews.
Other US luminaries who have called for
Obama to grant Pollard clemency include former congressman and presidential
adviser Lee Hamilton, former senator and presidential adviser Alan Simpson,
Harvard law professor and Obama mentor Charles Ogletree, US Appellate Court
Judge Stephen Williams and former deputy attorney- general Phillip Heymann.
Scores of congressmen, several senators and more than 500 clergymen have called
for Pollard’s release from prison.
Answering public entreaties from Korb
and Pollard’s wife, Esther, in early January, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu
became the first Israeli leader to issue a formal, public appeal for clemency
for Pollard. Netanyahu read the text of his appeal to Obama from the Knesset
podium and submitted it to the White House on January 4.
One of the main
reasons for the urgency of the current appeal is Pollard’s failing health. Aside
from that, the basic arguments given by his advocates are the disproportionate
length of Pollard’s sentence; his deep, repeatedly stated remorse for his
actions; his exemplary behavior in prison; and the fact that deterrence has been
OBAMA HAS failed to respond to Israel’s formal request for
He has been silent in the face of lesser requests as well. When
Pollard’s father, Morris, was on his deathbed in June, Obama did not respond to
formal requests to permit Pollard to visit him in the hospital. He similarly
failed to respond to formal requests for Pollard to attend his father’s
Obama’s cold silence was broken last week by his agent Vice
President Joseph Biden. According to the New York Jewish Week
, in a meeting with
15 rabbis in South Florida on September 23, Biden provided an unsolicited
monologue about Pollard’s case. Repeatedly referring to Pollard as a “traitor,”
Biden said, “It would take the Third Coming before I would support letting
According to The New York Times
, in making the statement,
Biden, who is considered a friend of the US Jewish community and of Israel,
served as Obama’s fall guy. Biden’s job was to deflect criticism of Obama’s
unstated decision not to release Pollard away from the president.
event, Obama’s decision to send Biden out to reject calls for Pollard’s release
Rather than killing the issue, Biden’s unbridled assault on
Pollard caused the US Jewish leadership to unify around Pollard and call for his
release. As Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman told Channel 2
on Wednesday, Jewish leaders had never discussed Pollard’s case publicly, but
after Biden went public, they decided that they must follow suit. The leaders of
the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements were all quoted by Jewish Week
calling for Pollard’s release.
Their calls came just before Biden’s
previously scheduled Rosh Hashana reception for Jewish leaders. So at the party
on Wednesday, Biden was beset by leaders asking him to reconsider his position
and recommend clemency for Pollard. In response, Biden agreed to meet with a
small group of Jewish leaders in the near future to discuss Pollard’s
Biden’s assault on Pollard was strange for two main reasons. First,
it was bad politics. Obama reportedly tasked Biden with rebuilding Jewish
support for the administration. That support has frayed in the face of Obama’s
harsh treatment of Israel.
It is odd that in the context of Biden’s
outreach attempts, he chose to express a hostile position on Pollard that
couldn’t help but raise the hackles of the very community he was dispatched to
woo. Rather than bringing the US Jewish community closer to the administration,
Biden accomplished the astounding feat of unifying the fractured community in
opposition to his position.
The second reason that Biden’s anti-Pollard
harangue made no sense is because it flew in the face of the claim that Obama
has turned over a new leaf on Israel. Obama’s supporters have argued that his
speech at the General Assembly last month where he opposed the PLO’s efforts to
gain UN membership as a sovereign state was a watershed event for the president.
In announcing his intention to veto a Palestinian statehood resolution in the UN
Security Council, his supporters argue that Obama abandoned his previous
hostility towards Israel and embraced it as an ally.
BIDEN’S ATTACK on
Pollard is just the latest in a stunning line of rebukes of Israel by Obama’s
senior surrogates over the past 10 days that cast a pall on that supposed
watershed event. First Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US opposes
even symbolic recognition of Israel’s capital city Jerusalem. Then she attacked
Israel for approving new housing construction in Jerusalem.
Clinton’s heels, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta launched a public assault on
Israel both ahead of and during his visit early this week.
seemingly made US support for Israel contingent on Israel’s willingness to make
concessions to its increasingly radicalized neighbors, saying, “As [the
Israelis] take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that
they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to
Panetta further accused Israel of isolating itself
diplomatically due to its unwillingness to take what he considers sufficient
risks. Just weeks after US intervention was needed to force Egypt’s military
junta to prevent the murder of six Israeli embassy guards besieged by a mob of
Egyptian rioters who took over the embassy in Cairo, Panetta added, “Real
security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a
strong effort to project your military strength.”
Besides blaming Israel
for the absence of peace with the Palestinians and for post-Mubarak Egypt’s
rapid radicalization, Panetta publicly rejected Israel’s right to take military
action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, claiming all action
against Iran must be multilateral. In stating this position, Panetta effectively
gave a green light for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
This is the case
because the sanctions policy the Obama administration clings to has already
demonstrably failed to deter Iran from advancing its nuclear weapons
Clinton’s attack on Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, Panetta’s
assault on Israel’s right to defend itself from the threat of genocide, and his
unrestrained criticism of Israel’s refusal to genuflect before increasingly
belligerent neighbors all indicated that Obama’s speech at the UN was not a new
chapter in his administration’s treatment of Israel. Rather, it was a one-off
response to concern about the loss of American Jewish support for the president.
That concern was spiked by the Republican victory in New York’s Ninth
Congressional District’s special election last month.
Biden’s assault on
Pollard – and through him, the American Jewish community – was a similar sign
that Obama has not let go of his antipathy for Israel.
on Israel following the Democrats’ congressional upset replicates his response
to Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s upset victory in the special Senate election in
Massachusetts in January 2010. Brown was elected at the height of the debate on
Obama’s nationalized healthcare plan.
For the first couple of weeks after
Brown’s election, Obama and his surrogates signaled their willingness to
compromise with Republicans in light of Massachusetts voters’ rebuke of their
partisan brinksmanship on the healthcare issue. But within two months of Brown’s
victory, Obama and his allies had doubled down and passed their highly
controversial healthcare program with no Republican support and against the
opposition of the majority of American voters.
In the case of both Israel
and healthcare, Obama has opted to ignore the political consequences of his
actions and press on with his ideological agenda.
The lesson Pollard and
his supporters in the US and in Israel should take from Obama’s behavior is that
they must continue to press on in their campaign for Pollard’s release as
energetically and as relentlessly as possible. As the election date nears, if
Obama’s polling numbers continue to drop, it is possible – although unlikely –
that he will decide that desperate times call for desperate measures and grant
Even if Obama fails to act in such a politically
sensible fashion, a public and outspoken campaign for Pollard’s release still
makes sense. At a minimum, it can set the conditions for a new president to
grant Pollard clemency immediately upon taking office, by causing Obama’s
Republican opponent to commit to such a course of action.
Pollard’s case with Jewish Week, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said, “In the midst of the Days of
Awe, as we ponder the wrongdoings we have committed and pray for God’s mercy, we
pray as well that President Obama will act with mercy and grant Mr. Pollard
American Jewish leaders deserve praise for their
willingness to plead on Pollard’s behalf. And they should be urged to continue
to highlight Pollard’s plight and call for his immediate release.
committed a crime. But his punishment far outweighs his misdeeds. Whether Obama
releases him from his long suffering or not, it is heartwarming that due to
Biden’s unbridled assault on Pollard, the American Jewish leadership has found
its voice and is calling for justice to be
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