Jonathan Pollard and 35 years of US-Israeli intelligence - analysis

From nadir to reaching new heights

Jonathan Pollard red, white and blue (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jonathan Pollard red, white and blue
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The latest news that Jonathan Pollard is now permitted to come to Israel brings into focus both the enormity of the damage that his saga did to US-Israeli defense relations, as well as the incredible heights these relations have currently reached.
From a US perspective, Pollard committed treason in handing over classified information to Israel without authorization, and on Sunday, Elyakim Rubinstein (who was acting Israeli ambassador during the incident) called the spying not just a mistake, but a significant injustice.
It ushered in a period of unprecedented mistrust between US and Israeli intelligence, as well as placing suspicion of potential dual loyalties by other American Jews.
The contrast could not be more stark from where we are now.
Ironically, recalling the Pollard affair comes right on the heels of the New York Times’s November 13 explosive report that the US and the Mossad teamed up to assassinate Abu Muhammad al-Masri, al-Qaeda’s number two, this past August.
One might even say that giving permission to Pollard to return to Israel – after publication of unprecedented intelligence sharing between Washington and Jerusalem down to the level of strategic operational assassinations – symbolically closes that earlier era of distrust.
In a prior interview with The Jerusalem Post, Shabtai Shavit told a story of how he was almost caught up in the Pollard affair since in fall 1985 he happened to be studying for a year with mid-management officials at the Harvard Kennedy School.
After that year off, he would return to the Mossad and become its deputy chief, and later its chief.
Right after Shavit and his wife had their telephone landline installed at their new Boston apartment, Shavit got an emergency call from Israel warning of potential Pollard fallout.
He had no idea who Pollard was, but the fallout was so large that any Israeli or Jew in a sensitive position could have been in trouble.
The imprisonment of Pollard for decades was only one of many impacts in which US intelligence agencies lost trust in Israel.
For decades, in some ways probably until the 9/11 era, there would be significant areas of distrust between the otherwise strong Israeli and American allies.
At a 2015 conference, Jay Ruderman of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which focuses on US-Israel relations, said that the Pollard affair had probably impacted or wrecked the careers of “hundreds of American Jews who served at the time in the army, Pentagon and State Department,” due to dual loyalty concerns.
This was both because the countries were allies, with the US as the senior partner, and because the US, as a country of mixed identities, is sensitive to the idea that different ethnic groups might not put America first over some foreign country to which they also have links.
ISRAELI INTELLIGENCE was sometimes viewed by American intelligence personnel with doubt and as having some kind of underlying ulterior intent.
Limits on intelligence-sharing and access to sources meant Israel was treated differently than some other close American allies, despite supposedly being on the “same side” against the Soviets and their Arab allies.
Even after 9/11, when CIA director George Tenet was confronted in January 2002 with Israeli intelligence estimates about Yasser Arafat working with Iran to smuggle into Gaza 50 tons of rockets and other weapons with which to attack Israeli civilian population centers, the spy chief was more skeptical of Israeli accusations than any other agency.
Famously, Tenet threatened former US president Bill Clinton in 1998 that if he released Pollard at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, he and the entire intelligence community leadership would resign en masse.
This does not mean that after 1985 the US and Israel did not cooperate on defense issues until 9/11.
But there were always limits on that cooperation that there might not have been on other allies who did not spy on the US, or who at least were not caught with their hand in the cookie jar.
Shavit has previously explained to the Post some of the difference between the current era and that period.
Back then, Israel was a minor and regional player in intelligence.
The US had a vast network of spies, satellites, overflights and other tools to collect intelligence about Arab conventional warfare capabilities, Pakistan’s nuclear program progress and the PLO, which dwarfed what Israel could gather, he said.
This started to change in the 9/11 era.
In 2013, one of the Edward Snowden documents revealed a five-page document titled “Memorandum of Understanding between the NSA and its Israeli counterpart [the ISNU],” which indicated that the US sends “unminimized” communications to Israel, including that of US citizens.
By then, Israeli intelligence outpaced American intelligence in many aspects of Middle East spying.
When Washington wanted to go after Middle East terrorism, it could finally learn many things from Israel.
But this changed even more over the last decade plus as Israel’s Mossad became a true first-tier spy agency with a global breadth.
Israel’s raid on Iran’s secret nuclear archives in January 2018 was viewed by US intelligence with some envy.
Sources close to Mossad Director Yossi Cohen have told the Post that then-CIA director Mike Pompeo was bowled over by the news when he was first updated.
According to foreign reports validated by the Post, Jerusalem’s involvement in the destruction of the Islamic Republic’s Natanz nuclear facility on July 2 would also have impressed the US.
The Post has also learned that the assassinations of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani in some ways was very similar to US-Israeli cooperation, according to foreign reports, in assassinating Musri.
Put simply, with Soleimani, Israel did a good deal of the leg work and the US pushed the button, whereas with Musri, the US did a good deal of the leg work and Israel pushed the button (according to foreign sources.)
Who pulled the trigger and who did the preliminary spying in each case may have had more to do with wanting to take credit or avoid credit based on geopolitical considerations.
But the two sides were working together on operations in real-time with major strategic implications.