Olmert to 'Post': Stop the Pollard festival

Is it really in our best interest to poke the bear?

(photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ / REUTERS)
The decision taken by the US Department of Justice to lift all parole restrictions, including freedom of movement, on Jonathan Pollard brings to an end the 35-year-long saga during which the State of Israel was forced to contend with a tragic episode that will be remembered as one of the greatest strains on Israel-US relations.
Let us begin from the end: It is my opinion that it would be preferable if Pollard did not move to Israel, or at least not in the immediate future. For many years, I was one of the few people who handled this case, was informed of all its details, understood all of the facets, was aware of all the associated dangers, examined all of the circumstances and complications and took pains to get Pollard’s sentence reduced.
In the beginning, when the details of the affair became clear, a two-person commission of inquiry was formed, headed by former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Tzvi Tzur and Yehoshua Rotenstreich, a former president of the Israeli Bar Association. The conclusions and recommendations of this commission remained, for the most part, confidential and deficient. As a result, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee appointed the Subcommittee on Intelligence Services to investigate the case further. I was on this subcommittee.
The common thread that ran through all of the discussions regarding the Pollard case was the enormous damage the affair could potentially have on US-Israel relations, and its potential threat on the most fundamental basis of trust and cooperation between the US and Israeli intelligence, military and security agencies.
Following this episode, the Israeli authorities made an official decision that its intelligence services would never again operate any agents on US soil. And indeed, since the mid-1980s and until today, the State of Israel and all of its intelligence subunits have not carried out any intelligence gathering whatsoever in the US. When I served as the prime minister, this issue came up during discussions I held with then-US president George W. Bush.
The subject arose in connection with a particular incident that was being investigated at the time by the FBI. It turned out that this incident was connected to the Pollard case, but it did not put a hamper on the excellent relationship between the Israeli and US intelligence agencies, in part due to the joint decision made by Bush and me to dramatically deepen the scope of this cooperation, with an emphasis on the Iranian front.
What did cloud our relationship with the American security establishment over the years were suspicions following the Pollard case that Israel continued to carry out intelligence operations in the US.
How is it conceivable, many people in the US political and security establishment have asked, that Israel, whose existence relies heavily on US support and commitment to its security, penetrated into the heart of the American intelligence establishment, and roamed around its most sensitive corridors behind the back of the US government and military leadership, while simultaneously asking for their support, aid and most innovative equipment.
Even if he received considerable monetary compensation, activating Pollard was a mistake of epic proportions. The person who was responsible for this decision was one of Israel’s most talented, brave and imaginative heads of Israeli intelligence operations: Rafi Eitan. During my term as prime minister, Eitan served as a government minister, and his actions once again highlighted his wisdom, sharp thinking, quick understanding of issues on the agendas of the government and the security cabinet, of which he was a member.
Eitan’s contribution to Israel’s security and to the country’s most daring operations – from leading the capture of Adolf Eichmann and countless secret operations around the globe – is absolutely remarkable, and he leaves a solid legacy of excellence and daring in the Israeli intelligence community.
Regarding Pollard, Eitan made a mistake in judgment and in conduct, and he was the first one to admit it. Engaging a Jewish spy – with an emphasis on Jewish – in the US, and precisely someone who identified deeply with the State of Israel was a grave mistake.
Members of Knesset and ministers in the government visiting to Pollard while he served his sentence in prison, as well as Israel granting him citizenship, led to great astonishment among US security officials.
Many American officials have asked how it is possible a person who Israel turned into a spy in the most sensitive of places within the American security establishment is then publicly praised in Israel. Many people feared Israel’s public backing of Pollard would lead to the questioning of where the loyalty of American Jews lies ,and how would it would affect public opinion and influence decision makers in American political and security institutions.
It’s understandable why so many people in Israel emotionally identify with Pollard, especially considering the harsh punishment imposed upon him by the US authorities. The vengeful intervention carried out by then-US secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, in which he wrote a special memo stating that Pollard was not just a spy, but a traitor, led the judge to refuse the prosecution’s request for Pollard to receive a reasonable judgment. This decision justifiably led to anger among many Israelis.
But how is it that so many of us were blind to the fact that our public outcry of support for Pollard – even from public figures here in Israel – angered our amazing friends in the US and increased the doubts held by the American security establishment regarding the trustworthiness of the State of Israel.
I have no desire to go into detail here about all of the efforts we have made over the years to minimize the damage the Pollard affair has caused. As helpful, important and at times even groundbreaking as the intelligence that Pollard handed over to Israel, it did not compensate for the damage done and for its potentially destructive nature, of which remains until today.
Quite a few people have told me over the last few days that my recommendation that Pollard not come to Israel was ruthless and offensive.
I’m happy for Pollard that his parole restrictions have been lifted. There’s no doubt that for a man at his age who spent so many years locked up in prison being given back his freedom of movement will significantly improve his quality of life. It’s almost inevitable that if he visits or makes aliyah, his arrival will be turned into a grand celebration.
Even if his hosts or sponsors try to prevent such a festival from taking place, they will not succeed. The State of Israel, and especially the person who currently stands at its head, have proven that there is no limit to what they are willing to do to take advantage of any event for their political and personal gain.
The public, promotional and festive use of the Pollard affair in Israel is a disturbing provocation of the American security establishment.
The consequences of such provocation could be serious, especially since the new administration will not be run by the current president or in the same style, and the US security establishment will most likely return to the way it has functioned over the last 35 years.
Is it really in our best interest to poke the bear?
Let us congratulate Pollard and share in his joy at the lifting of the restrictions on his freedom of movement, but let’s wait to welcome him to Israel in better times.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.