A View from Israel: Jonathan Pollard: Deterrent?

Jonathan Pollard is an American Jew who worked as an analyst in US Naval intelligence and spied for Israel.

Free Pollard rally 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Free Pollard rally 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Years ago, Jonathan Pollard’s father, Morris, stood at the front of my high-school classroom in South Bend, Indiana, the place of Jonathan’s childhood, and began his presentation by saying, “My name is Morris Pollard and I’m biased.”
Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew working as an analyst in US Naval intelligence and spying for Israel, was caught in 1985 after passing thousands of top-secret documents to Israel out of concern for its security.
During the course of his lecture, in which he offered a unique perspective, Morris argued in favor of his son, not defending his actions, but defending the idea that freeing him was the right action for the US government to take.
During the question-and-answer session, I asked whether it was possible that Jonathan was really guilty of causing far greater damage than the public was being told. He replied that while it was possible, he did not believe so.
What we do know is that Rafi Eitan, head of Lakam, the technological espionage agency in Israel’s Defense Ministry, wanted to outdo the Mossad and when he heard about Pollard he jumped at the chance.
In Territory of Lies, Wolf Blitzer, who was at the time the Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and the first person to cover Pollard’s side of the story one year later, writes, “An Israeli intelligence official told me that some of the information Pollard had provided was ‘so breathtaking’ that it justified the risk Israel was taking in running an agent in Washington.”
NATURALLY, WITHOUT any security clearance and inside information, it is difficult for the average citizen to really know the truth about Pollard’s case. The series of events and information passed to Israel leading to Pollard’s arrest in November 1985 may never be revealed.
It is possible, however, that Pollard is being held for a number of reasons. First, he may be guilty of causing more damage than we know about. Second, even if this is not the case, the US remains furious at Israel, even to this day, and is likely taking “revenge” by keeping Pollard locked up. Third, the US may be using Pollard as a deterrent – to remind Israeli intelligence officials at all times to think twice about spying on the US.
Interestingly, as Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman point out in Every Spy a Prince, the US has sent spies into Israel on specific missions to learn about various projects, including the nuclear program. Then-defense minister Yitzhak Rabin remarked immediately after Pollard’s arrest that Israel had discovered five American spies in the late 1970s and early 1980s in sensitive facilities. None of them were prosecuted.
Pollard was recruited when Moshe Arens was defense minister, responsible for Lakam, and Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister. Pollard continued to provide information when Rabin replaced Arens and Shimon Peres replaced Shamir. They all admitted they had received information from Pollard but claim they did not know the identity of the source. Had they known, they said, they would have immediately canceled the operation.
And now Peres is back in the spotlight together with Pollard.
As reported earlier this week in The Jerusalem Post, in a letter to President Barack Obama, Peres asked him to grant clemency to convicted spy Jonathan Pollard on humanitarian grounds. He also thanked him for the great friendship that his government has shown to the State of Israel and emphasized the concern felt in Israel in general and by members of Pollard’s family in particular about his deteriorating health.
Peres noted that in view of Pollard’s poor health coupled with the 26-and-a-half years that he has served, it would be viewed as a supreme humanitarian gesture if Obama would commute his sentence.
In June, Peres is expected to receive the presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama. A petition signed by thousands of Israeli citizens urges the president to secure Pollard’s release before the ceremony.
On Sunday, the president met with Shas’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who also urged him to push for Pollard’s release.
A number of senior government figures knowledgeable about the Pollard case have written about it.
In his autobiography Summing Up, former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir wrote, “Before and during his trial, in 1987, both governments had consulted frequently. The United States, I thought, had not been generous; sentencing Pollard to life imprisonment seemed to me, in light of the relationship between the two countries, to be unduly harsh, and in a last communication with the president (it was in fact one of the last letters I wrote as prime minister), I asked for presidential commutation of Pollard’s sentence. In his brief answer [President George H. W.] Bush explained that since the case was under supreme court review, my request could not be considered until that process was complete.”
Former US ambassador to Israel Samuel W.
Lewis wrote, “The Pollard affair was potentially more damaging [than the Lavi aircraft affair], but the Israeli government’s response was very forthcoming, and it is a mark of the closeness of our relationship that the damage has been well contained. We have all sorts of sharp disagreements with other allies – the British, the French, the Japanese, and yet nobody questions the fundamentals of those alliance relationships. We should perceive USIsraeli friction in a similar light.
“Israel receives a tremendous amount of information from the US through normal channels; the US also benefits significantly from the exchanges. Of course, our intelligence community does not give Israel everything Israel asks for, nor does Israel give the US everything the US wants. No government shares all of its sensitive intelligence with any other government. Our friendly relations with several Arab countries, for example, preclude sharing some kinds of intelligence with Israel.”
Since Ronald Reagan, every US president has withstood pressure to release Pollard. Today, Obama is no different. There are likely numerous and complex factors the US takes into account and it is unlikely to release Pollard in the near future.
Peres is, however, in a unique position, more so than anyone else in the past perhaps, to request that Obama grant Pollard clemency. It is for this reason that he has come under pressure to push for Pollard’s release and he certainly should use this special occasion, before his receipt of the presidential Medal of Freedom, to further Pollard’s cause.