Obama’s unique opportunity with Pollard

Obama could simultaneously do right by jailed agent, bolster his standing here, enable PM to demonstrate appreciation in diplomatic sphere.

By TZACHI HANEGBI
December 26, 2010 22:04
4 minute read.
Jonathan Pollard

Jonathan Pollard 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

On November 21, 1985, Jonathan Pollard was apprehended by FBI agents, after having been denied refuge at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

At that time, I was serving as an adviser to acting prime minister and foreign minister Yitzhak Shamir, and I then served as his bureau chief after his appointment to the premiership less than a year later. From the moment Pollard was arrested until the end of Shamir’s term in 1992, this sensitive subject was a top priority among the three leaders of the unity government: Shamir, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.

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At the core of Shamir’s considerations stood the aspiration to minimize, as far as possible, the potential damage caused by the breakdown of trust with the US. The excessively heavy price was paid by Pollard. Israel was required by the US to return all the classified documents he had transferred, and it did so, although this strengthened the evidence against him.

The investigative committee established by the Knesset to examine the affair harshly criticized this move: “The decision to return the documents passed over by Jonathan Pollard was fundamentally wrong and caused serious damage. These documents provided the basis for the conviction and the life sentence handed down to Pollard, despite Israel’s belief that America had pledged not use the documents against him.”

Shamir did not act the way he did, and neither did Rabin or Peres, out of indifference. As he explained to us, his close advisers, he strongly identified with the pain and distress of Pollard and his wife (who was sentenced to five years imprisonment).

However, Shamir clearly understood what was entailed by sacrifice for one’s country. At a young age, he had joined the underground fight against the British and fought for Israel’s independence. He lived as a wanted man, was arrested twice and exiled to Africa. After the establishment of the state, he was enlisted into the Mossad and commanded acutely dangerous operations. As one who personally experienced what it was to live under constant threat of exposure, and the consequent catastrophic consequences, Shamir had no doubt that the good of the country must take precedence over the fate of an individual.

MORE THAN a decade passed before the leadership understood that its highest moral priority was to enlist on behalf of this individual, whose actions had constituted a unique service to the security of the country, and even saved the lives of many Israelis. In May 1998, the attorney-general issued an official letter, stating: “The State of Israel acknowledges its obligation to Mr. Pollard, and is ready to assume full responsibility accordingly.” Pollard received Israeli citizenship, MKs and ministers visited him in prison and prime ministers – every one of them – privately asked successive US presidents to release him. None of this helped; 25 years have passed and Pollard is still behind bars.



Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he will make an unprecedented public appeal to President Barack Obama regarding Pollard is a highly significant development.

A series of surveys has examined the level of the public’s trust in the US president since 2008, and consistently indicated that Israelis have a very low degree of support for Obama.

Although in those two years there has not been any significant change in US policy toward Israel, and although security and intelligence cooperation has actually deepened in this period, Obama’s standing has not come close to the levels of popularity enjoyed by previous presidents, like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. The reasons for this are diverse, and almost all of an emotional nature, but at the heart lie two factors: Obama’s failure to visit since taking office and his strong belief in the need to stretch out a hand to the Muslim world, as clearly expressed in his conciliatory speeches in Cairo and Istanbul.

Now, Obama has a unique opportunity to bridge the psychological abyss between him and the people of Israel: to grant a pardon to Jonathan Pollard.

This decision, like no other political or military gesture, has humanitarian justification, and no one in the Palestinian camp or the Arab world could object to it. Quite the reverse, a bold move like this would not only strengthen the ties of the Obama administration to the Jews of his country and Israel, but would also make it easier for Netanyahu to show his appreciation for the president, who is very interested in renewing the deadlocked diplomatic process.

A PRESIDENTIAL initiative to pardon Pollard obviously would not go uncriticized. In recent years it was senior officials from the American intelligence community who repeatedly thwarted attempts to secure Pollard’s release. In October 1998, toward the signing of the Wye River Accords, Clinton retracted an agreement with Netanyahu to pardon Pollard, because CIA head George Tenet had threatened to resign over the issue.

However, now the situation is different. Another dozen years have passed. Everyone knows that the punishment Pollard received has become disproportionate to the severity of the crime for which he was convicted. This conclusion has also permeated the ranks of the US government itself. People like Lawrence J. Korb, assistant to defense minister Caspar Weinberger, who at the time led the hard line against Pollard; Michael Mukasey, former US attorneygeneral; and James Wolsey, former head of the CIA, have all expressed similar sentiments. If Obama can muster the courage to work for a pardon for Pollard, it is likely that he will enjoy broad, bipartisan support in Congress.

Foremost, this would of course be wonderful news for Pollard himself. But beyond that, the surprising move could also quickly emerge as a brilliant gambit in the sphere of Israeli-American relations.

The writer is a former Kadima MK.


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