Though few topics have been off-limits for the Republican presidential field this cycle, there’s one glaring issue most of them prefer to keep totally mum about: the parole of former Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.
Yesterday, former Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was released from federal prison. When he served as a Navy intelligence analyst, the government of Israel paid him from $1,500 to $2,500 a month, per CNN, to covertly pass them classified information. After Pollard was convicted, he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years. He’s been called “one of the worst traitors of the 20th century.”
But he had many powerful and loyal advocates in Israel -- including current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- who lobbied unsuccessfully for a commutation of his sentence. And the country awarded him citizenship after his conviction. Republicans don’t often see any conflict between the goals of the Israeli government and the United States’ national security interests. But Pollard’s incarceration -- and, now, the conditions of his parole -- confront them with such a conundrum.
And some powerful Republicans were Team Pollard. Ted Olson, an attorney on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and then solicitor general during his first term, represented him before the D.C. Court of Appeals. And according to a Daily Beast report from 2012, Republican megadonor and king-maker Sheldon Adelson pushed for then-Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to call for the spy’s release. Romney didn’t.
Though Pollard is now free, his attorneys are challenging what they characterize as “onerous and oppressive conditions of parole.” Pollard -- who “passed more secrets to a foreign power (360-plus cubic feet of paper), in the shortest amount of time, than any spy before or after him,” according to a retired Navy counterintelligence officer quoted at IntelNews.org -- has to wear an ankle monitor and can’t move to Israel for at least five years.
The Daily Beast reached out to all the competitive Republican presidential campaigns (and the Democrats, too) about whether they supported Pollard’s release and thought he should be allowed to leave the U.S. for Israel. Only Ben Carson’s team provided an answer. His communications director, Doug Watts, emailed that the retired neurosurgeon is fine with what happened.
“Jonathan Pollard has done his time and therefore Dr Carson has no objection or concern with his release,” Watts said. “As for his travel restriction, Dr Carson defers to the judgement of the Parole Board.”
Huckabee’s team didn’t send an answer, but he told Israeli media outlet Arutz Sheva earlier this year that he was “delighted” by the prospect of Pollard’s release and had concerns about his health.
“[T]here’s no purpose being served by continuing to have him incarcerated and I’m delighted he’ll be finally freed and be able to go to Israel,” the former Arkansas governor added, erroneously assuming Pollard would immediately be able to leave the U.S.
Huckabee also told Arutz Sheva he hoped “that this is not sort of a bald attempt for this president to try to appease and win friends among the Israelis, believing that if he lets Jonathan Pollard go then the Israelis are bound and determined that they have to support the Iranian deal.”
Jeb Bush’s team didn’t get back to us about the former Florida governor’s stance on Pollard. His brother, though, resisted Israeli efforts to secure a commutation of the spy’s sentence. IntelNews noted that a “massive campaign was conducted behind the scenes,” including tens of thousands of phone calls to the White House from his supporters, to get him out of prison.
“Hopeful writers at Israel National News even prepared an article celebrating his release under a would-be headline ‘Jonathan Pollard is Coming Home!’” wrote Arutz Sheva on Jan. 9, 2009, on their misplaced optimism that Bush would release the spy in the final days of his presidency.
They weren’t the only ones long holding out for his release. After Pollard left prison, Netanyahu took to Twitter to celebrate.
“As someone who raised his case before successive U.S. presidents many times, I longed for this day,” the prime minister said in a video the account tweeted out. “And now after three long and difficult decades, Jonathan is being released. I wish him on this first Sabbath that he’s going to spend with his family a lot of joy, a lot of happiness, a lot of peace. May these be the hallmarks of the rest of his life.”
One Israeli paper has reported that Netanyahu is lobbying for Pollard to be allowed to travel to the country before five years of parole are up. Netanyahu’s office wouldn’t confirm that report to the AP.
Though the PM is unequivocal about Pollard, one of Netanyahu’s most vocal supporters in the Senate has stayed mum. Marco Rubio, a hawkish foe of the Iran deal and long-time critic of Obama’s handling of U.S./Israeli relations, has yet to say anything about the spy’s release. A spokeswoman for his campaign told The Daily Beast that she would let us know if they have a comment.
The Conservative Solutions Project, a pro-Rubio outside group, used video of Netanyahu in an ad touting the senator that aired in cable news networks, including Fox News.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s team also didn’t reply to a query about his views on Pollard’s release and the conditions of his parole. But this past April at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting in Las Vegas, he expressed openness to pardoning Pollard if elected.
“Cruz said he’d keep an ‘open mind’ about the situation, but wanted to hear from U.S. intelligence agencies before deciding,” wrote Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius.
It seems highly unlikely that intelligence agencies would have told President Cruz it was a good call to pardon Pollard. As IntelNews noted, then-CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if then-President Bill Clinton had pardoned the spy. Clinton didn’t.
And conservative Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach told The Hill in July that Cruz gave him a heads-up on Pollard’s upcoming parole.
“I was told that Sen. Cruz had met with the Justice Department and other representatives from other branches of government and they said that he was going to be paroled in November,” he told the paper.
So Pollard makes life complicated for Republican candidates. No wonder then, for the most part, they’d rather talk about anything else.