In advance of President Obama’s scheduled March 20 visit, Israeli society at every level is waging an unprecedented, all-out public effort to press for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the American Jew serving a life sentence for spying for Israel. The past month has seen figures as diverse as President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, far-right Likud lawmaker Moshe Feiglin and former Hamas hostage Gilad Shalit calling on Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence to time served and set him free. So has the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the massive international Jewish charity. More than 150,000 Israelis have signed an online petition calling for his release. The Knesset held a special debate in his honor on March 6.
Pollard’s case has been a cause celebre in Israel and the organized Jewish world since his arrest in 1985. A civilian analyst with U.S. Naval Intelligence, he had volunteered his information services to Israel in June 1984, believing, as he later claimed, that America was withholding data vital to Israel’s security. Arrested 17 months later, he pleaded guilty in return for leniency, but received a life sentence for reasons that remain murky and hotly contested. Some activist American Jews began calling in the early 1990s for his sentence to be reduced, claiming life imprisonment for spying for an ally was unprecedented and unjustified. Israel, after initially calling it a “rogue operation,” admitted in 1998 that Pollard had worked for a little-known intelligence agency and asked for his release. Every president since then has been asked and refused.
Pollard’s advocates are a sometimes-uneasy coalition of far-rightists who view him as a Jewish martyr, if not a hero, and moderates who see his severe sentence as unfair. Opponents of his release say that while only a handful of American spies have received life sentences, few have ever compromised so vast a trove of highly sensitive information. The two sides also argue back and forth over whether he was motivated by ideals or money.
Some government sources suggest that the idealism defense actually works against Pollard. His arrest, it’s said, terrified Pentagon officials, who had grudgingly agreed since the late 1960s to end longstanding resistance to hiring Jews as potentially disloyal, only to find a case that seemed to confirm their suspicions. According to one source, a well-connected former Pollard attorney, he received a maximum sentence in order to make him an example to any other Jewish employees who might be tempted to help Israel. Pollard’s defenders say such a scenario would make his sentence a grave violation of his rights, since the justice system isn’t meant to be a pedagogic device. On the other hand, the very existence of a Jewish pro-Pollard campaign could be seen as proving the point. Indeed, Haaretz diplomatic affairs correspondent Barak Ravid reported last week that a senior U.S. official told him the current free-Pollard campaign would only hurt the prisoner’s chances for freedom.
If there’s an air of extreme urgency to this latest clemency campaign, that’s at least partly because time is running out. According to his Federal Bureau of Prisons profile, Pollard is scheduled for parole in November 2015. For those interested in making political hay from the poor guy’s misery, therefore, this is probably the last chance.
If a political splash is what’s desired, the stars are truly aligned right now. The long odds against early release have been clear at least since 1998, when then-prime minister Netanyahu put it on the table during negotiations with Yasser Arafat at the Wye Plantation in Maryland as a condition for his signature on an interim peace deal. President Bill Clinton consented, but reversed himself the next morning when CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard were freed.
Clinton’s Republican successor, George W. Bush turned down at least three separate Israeli requests for Pollard’s release. Bush’s two visits to Israel, both during his eighth and last year in office, were accompanied by some public campaigning for Pollard’s release, but nothing like the nationwide outpouring underway greeting this president.
The difference, it appears, is that this president is Barack Obama. He’s viewed with widespread suspicion in Israel, and his visit is openly intended to smooth relations and improve his image. To some minds, this could make him vulnerable to pressure on the issue. Netanyahu in particular has made Pollard a personal issue; besides raising it with Clinton, he visited Pollard in prison in North Carolina in 2002 after leaving office the first time, the highest-ranking Israeli to make the trip.
And even if commutation or pardon isn’t forthcoming, as seems inevitable given the fierce opposition of the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community, raising Pollard during the visit offers a rare opportunity for the Israeli right to embarrass Obama before the world media. Already the president caused a stir in Jerusalem by declining to address the Knesset, reportedly out of fear that rightists would create a commotion. Feiglin had vowed to walk out of the chamber. It wasn’t clear how many others would join him. Instead Obama will address an invited audience at the Jerusalem convention center.
On the other hand, the potential for embarrassment cuts both ways. It was less than a month ago that Israel and the world were shocked by disclosures about another Diaspora Jew who was exploited by Israeli intelligence, trapped between two loyalties and ended up in prison. In that case the compromised agent was an Australian native, Ben Zygier, and the prison where he ended up was Israeli. And unlike Pollard, he didn’t survive his incarceration.