Opinion: What Peres can do for Jonathan Pollard

No Israeli leader is better positioned to make the case to US decision makers to free Israel's spy.

peres wins 298 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
peres wins 298 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Like most newly elected leaders, Shimon Peres announced in his victory speech that he would strive to be a force for national unity. There is no international cause on the Israeli public's agenda on which the people agree more - and, arguably, no cause for which president-elect Peres would be so uniquely qualified to advocate - than the plight of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Peres was Israel's prime minister in 1985 when Pollard was arrested in the US and charged with passing classified information to Israel. Peres's role in cooperating with the US authorities in prosecuting Pollard has been criticized for years (and will probably continue to be criticized) by Pollard's supporters and others. Regardless of one's views of Peres's conduct after Pollard was arrested, there is near-universal agreement that the decision to recruit an American Jew to spy on Israel's best friend was foolish and reckless. Yet the convergence between Peres's own role in the Pollard affair and the deep respect that Peres enjoys in the West (in particular in the US) creates a diplomatic opportunity for Peres that no Israeli leader has had at any time since Pollard was incarcerated in 1985. Since the late 1980s or the early 1990s, presumably every Israeli prime minister and foreign minister has raised the Pollard case (usually in private) during diplomatic visits to Washington. Yet, with the possible exception of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, no Israeli diplomat has ever given the public the impression that Pollard's case was presented as a priority. Indeed, the clear sense, for years, has been that Pollard was usually an afterthought on diplomatic visits to Washington. SHIMON PERES has the opportunity to be different. For whatever reason - perhaps because he was awarded a Nobel Prize for peace, perhaps because he is perceived as the rightful heir to the goodwill built by the slain Yitzhak Rabin, or perhaps because he is, by nature, more cosmopolitan than most Israeli politicians - Shimon Peres is still the most admired Israeli politician abroad. How likely is it that Peres would be interested in taking on the Pollard case as a primary agenda item? To some extent, the answer to that question depends on the reaction of Pollard's family and closest friends. To Pollard's closest supporters, Peres is the Devil Incarnate. They would argue that were it not for the cooperation Peres gave as prime minister in the mid-1980s, Pollard might never have been convicted, and he would today be a free man. That assertion should, today, be irrelevant. Even assuming Peres's responsibility for the decision of the US government to prosecute Pollard 20-plus years ago, that was then, and this is now. Peres "the unifier" has a job to do, and it is to wage a campaign with a simple message: that Pollard has served a sufficient prison term. Peres need not engage in any argument as to the propriety of Israel's recruiting an American Jew to spy on the US. Similarly, he need not address the issue of Pollard's motives. The only message he needs to convey to the Bush administration and the American Congress is that Pollard has sat in prison long enough. WHAT OBSTACLES would president-elect Peres be likely to encounter if he were to assume the role of Pollard's advocate? The first obstacle might, ironically, be Pollard himself and his closest supporters. In October 2006, writing in The Jerusalem Post, I argued that the Pollard camp should change its strategy and lobby for his being released from prison on house arrest. The main reason for such strategy (I argued) was that with the United States holding a presidential election in November 2008, time was (and is) running out to get any American president to grant any form of clemency for Pollard. My proposal was immediately rejected by Pollard's wife (also writing in the Post). Since October 2006 it has been difficult to see any progress in the movement to get a full pardon for Pollard. The possibility of resistance on the part of the Pollard camp should not, however, be a stumbling block to the new president. As Pollard and his supporters have correctly argued for many years, Pollard was an Israeli agent who deserved the backing of this country. It is the people of Israel who have the right, if not the obligation, to urge their new president to take up the Pollard cause - even if Pollard's closet supporters cannot stomach the idea that the former "guilty" Israeli prime minister would now serve as Pollard's advocate. It is often said that politics makes strange bedfellows. So does history. In 1985, after Pollard's arrest and the resulting embarrassment to the Peres government, the priority of the Israeli government was to demonstrate to the United States that Israel was remorseful for having spied on it. Back then, few would have expected Pollard to still be in prison in 2007, and few would have predicted that Peres would, in 2007, be the candidate for president of a centrist Kadima Party founded by Ariel Sharon. Nonetheless, history has made Peres Israel's statesman with the greatest chance of achieving a breakthrough in Pollard's case. As the new president prepares to take office on a platform of unity, Pollard's supporters should make Peres put his diplomatic goodwill where his mouth is. The author is an American-Israeli lawyer, practicing in Ramat Gan. He serves as vice chair of the Middle East Law Committee of the American Bar Association.