In retribution for his serious crimes, Jonathan Pollard has been severely punished to the point that the wrongs committed by him are matched by the wrongs committed against him by our government. Spying for Israel is apparently a far worse offense than spying for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War or, more recently, for Russia. If for no other reason, this is why the Pollard story is an American disgrace.
It requires no justification of Pollard’s deeds or even sympathy for the man to recognize that he has been confined to a fate unprecedented in U.S. history. He is, metaphorically, a man in an iron mask, someone to be locked away until death frees him. His prosecutor was duplicitous, his original lawyers were incompetent, his sentencing judge was cruel and unjust and, to top all of this off, there was his wife’s ill-conceived Sixty Minutes interview and also Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s secret and fundamentally dishonest sentencing memorandum. Pollard had the further misfortune that his appeal was heard by a three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals panel that included two Jewish judges, one extremely liberal and the other extremely conservative, who over a powerful dissent by the one non-Jew blithely ignored the inappropriateness of the process that resulted in a life sentence. Fate hasn’t been kind to Pollard.
If this sounds paranoid, with perhaps the charge of anti-Semitism thrown in for good measure, it is assuredly is anything but that. A fair assessment of the case forces the conclusion that Pollard’s sentence was excessive and now should be commuted to time served. In the time-honored tradition applicable to freed spies, he should be sent to the country for which he did his spying. A surprising number of congressmen, a breed not known for courage under fire, and Lawrence Korb who was an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, have called for commutation.
What will now happen cannot be known. It is hard to figure out why Pollard has never caught a break. It may be his fate to fall through the cracks. Anti-Israel sentiment, which is not quite the same as anti-Semitism, in high government positions may be a contributing factor, as his continued imprisonment is a way of striking back at Israel by those who believe that Israel has been the recipient of too much support by successive administrations.
Israel hasn’t helped. True, in the Clinton years and during the Wye Israel-Palestinian peace talks – they seem ages ago – Benjamin Netanyahu who was in his first term as Israel’s Prime Minister, pressed the Americans for Pollards’ release. President Clinton went along, only to be vetoed by CIA Director George Tenet who threatened to resign if the President commuted the sentence. Mr. Clinton backed down, which was wrongful because a president should never yield to such threats. Worse yet, because he backed down, Tenet stayed on, playing a key role in the intelligence failures that preceded 9/11. For incompetence bordering on misfeasance, George W. Bush awarded Tenet our nation’s highest civilian honor.
Although Mr. Netanyahu has asked for Pollard’s release, he invariably has dropped the request when the U.S. said no or simply ignored the issue. Nor has release been advanced as a formal Israeli government position. This has just changed, increasing the prospect of commutation, although doubtlessly the CIA and the Pentagon will object. A more critical barrier is President Obama’s determination, amply on display during the past two years, not to be seen as soft on American security. His Press Secretary, the glib Robert Gibbs, has already said that Pollard’s release is not on the horizon.
Mr. Netanyahu should be insistent because nations ought not turn their backs on the spies they recruit. Unfortunately, Israel does not have chips to swap in the form of American operatives who have spied on Israel. They exist, for sure, although for sure it would be impolitic, even risky, for Israel to arrest CIA agents who have engaged in such espionage.
What should our major organizations and rank and file do? Over the years, most American Jews have been mute, leaving pro-Pollard advocacy to fringe elements, including too many who believe that Pollard did nothing wrong. Our organizations have also stayed away. Now calls for commutation are coming from the American Jewish mainstream. It is now legitimate to advocate for Pollard, which is why there is congressional support.
It may be better for us to refrain from public advocacy, as a public campaign could backfire, serving as a wake-up call for those who want Pollard locked up for life, with the keys thrown away. If Mr. Netanyahu is serious about Israel working to secure Pollard’s release, at some point he will have to decide whether to yield to American pressure on some Palestinian issue. About a month ago, there was what he could offer without undermining Israeli security, notably another two-month freeze on settlement construction. Now that the U.S. is no longer asking for a moratorium, that option does not exist. Presumably there are other issues that can serve as bait. The key obligation is to see that Pollard’s release is on the U.S.-Israel agenda.
The call is Mr. Obama’s not Mr. Netanyahu’s. Of note, except at the time of his arrest and a bit thereafter, Pollard has not been on the American public radar screen. If the President decides to commute, it is doubtful that there will be much of a reaction. He should commute because that is the right thing to do. Continued imprisonment adds to America’s disgrace and not at all to America’s security.