Obama’s unique opportunity with Pollard

The US president could simultaneously do right by the jailed agent, bolster his standing here, and enable Netanyahu to demonstrate appreciation in the diplomatic sphere.

Jonathan Pollard 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
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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 as prime minister 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 to Israel caused by the break down of trust with the US. The excessively heavy price was paid by Jonathan Pollard. Israel was required by the US to return all the classified documents Pollard had transferred, and it did so, despite the fact that 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 nor 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 of her own).
However, Shamir clearly understood what was entailed by sacrifice for one’s country. Already at a young age, Shamir 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 of Israel, 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 Israeli 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 of the Prime Minister’s Office 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, Knesset members and ministers visited him in prison, and prime ministers – every one of them – privately asked successive US presidents to release him from prison. None of this helped. Twenty-five years have passed and Pollard is still behind bars.
Prime Minister Netanyahu's announcement that he will make an unprecedented public appeal to President Obama regarding Pollard is a highly significant development.
A series of surveys has examined the level of the Israeli public’s trust in the US president since 2008, and consistently indicated that Israeli citizens have a very low degree of support for Barack Obama.
Despite the fact that in those two years there has not been any significant change in the US's policy towards Israel, and despite the fact that security and intelligence cooperation between the US and Israel has actually deepened in this period, Obama’s standing with the Israeli public opinion has not come close to the levels of popularity enjoyed by previous presidents, like Reagan, George Bush senior, George Bush junior and Clinton. 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 Israel 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, President Obama has a unique opportunity to bridge the psychological abyss that has opened up 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 Prime Minister 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 un-criticized. In recent years it was senior officials from the American intelligence community who repeatedly thwarted attempts to secure Pollard's release. In October 1998, towards the signing of the Wye River Accords, then president Bill Clinton retracted an agreement with Prime Minister 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 Weinberger, who at the time led the hard line against Pollard; Michael Mukasey, former US attorney general; and James Wolsey, former head of the CIA, have all expressed similar sentiments. If President Obama can muster the courage to work for a pardon for Pollard, it is likely that he will enjoy broad, bipartisan support in the US 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 gamble in the sphere of Israeli-American relations.
The writer is a former Kadima MK.