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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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
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.
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
The writer is a former Kadima MK.
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