The National – 7 January 2011
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, risked further straining relations with the White House, already damaged by the impasse in peace talks, by writing an open letter this week to President Barack Obama urging the release of spy Jonathan Pollard.
It is the first time that an Israeli government has made a formal request for clemency for Pollard, who was sentenced to life in 1987 for passing thousands of classified documents to Israel while serving in US naval intelligence.
The Pollard affair has hampered diplomatic relations between the two countries for a quarter of a century. Pollard, an American Jew, was given Israeli citizenship in 1995 and his role as a spy officially confirmed by Israel in 1998.
The timing of Mr Netanyahu’s public appeal for clemency – in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Washington over Israeli intransigence towards US efforts to revive negotiations with the Palestinians – surprised observers.
Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and former adviser to Ehud Barak, the current defence minister, said the political atmosphere in the US was “far from conducive to doing Netanyahu a favour”.
Mr Netanyahu, who has lobbied on Pollard’s behalf since his first premiership in the late 1990s, appeared to be making a populist move designed to shore up his support on the right, Mr Alpher added.
“The Pollard lobby is very strong in Israel and the prime minister appears to have made a calculation that, even if the move is unlikely to do much good with the Americans, it would harm him more in Israel to be seen to be doing nothing.”
As Mr Netanyahu read out the letter to the Israeli parliament on Tuesday, he described his plea for leniency as “a move that represents and unites all parts of the nation”.
He noted that a similar appeal had been sent last month to President Obama by Reuven Rivlin, the parliamentary speaker, that was signed by all but 11 of the country’s 120 MPs – only the Arab legislators appear to have refused.
In response to Mr Netanyahu’s letter, Thomas Vietor, a White House spokesman, said only that the administration would “review” the matter.
Until the letter, Israeli lobbying on behalf of Pollard had been conducted exclusively behind the scenes. The Central Intelligence Agency and US justice officials have adamantly opposed Pollard’s release whenever the matter has been raised in the past.
The earliest date for Pollard’s parole is 2015.
Pollard himself has added to the pressure on Mr Netanyahu by delivering a message last month through his second wife, Esther, whom he married while in jail, that it was time to go public with the campaign to win his freedom.
He has been offered high-profile backing from Lawrence Korb, the assistant US defence secretary at the time of Pollard’s arrest. Mr Korb wrote a commentary in support of his release in the Los Angeles Times in October.
Herb Keinon, an analyst for the Jerusalem Post, said Mr Obama was under pressure to make a concession to Israel as his support among Jewish groups in the US continued to wane.
He noted that Dennis Ross, a special White House adviser on the Middle East, had admitted in his memoirs that in the late 1990s, as then-president Bill Clinton’s Middle East envoy, he favoured releasing Pollard in return for a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians.
Mr Alpher said it was hard to believe Mr Netanyahu had acted without first “putting out feelers” to the White House to see how such an appeal on behalf of Pollard would be received.
“It is possible that Netanyahu may have offered a commitment to the US regarding negotiations with the Palestinians in return for Pollard’s release.”
Last September, when Israel’s partial moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank expired, Mr Netanyahu was reported to have proposed Pollard’s release in return for a freeze extension. In the end, the freeze was not renewed and the talks collapsed.
Mr Alpher said a freed Pollard would be a strong electoral asset for Mr Netanyahu. “If he were released, the right would parade him over the Israeli media and he could be counted on to make very right-wing pronouncements that would help Netanyahu.”
Although Mr Netanyahu struck a largely conciliatory tone in his letter, he included statements that were likely to anger US officials opposed to leniency.
Mr Netanyahu admitted Israel’s actions had been “wholly unacceptable”, then added that, in operating Pollard as a spy, Israel was “in no way directing its intelligence efforts against the United States”.
Mr Netanyahu also restated a claim long made by Pollard’s supporters that his life sentence was “disproportionate” and that he had served longer than any other person convicted of a similar crime.
That view is unlikely to be shared by many in the US intelligence community. During Pollard’s plea bargain, it emerged that he had been paid at least US$50,000 (Dh183,600) by Israeli handlers for information. Pollard told the court he passed on “360 cubic feet” of documents over a 17-month period, reportedly to South Africa and Pakistan as well as Israel.
The information is believed to have included the location of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s headquarters in Tunisia, which Israel bombed in 1985, killing 35 people, and reports on Soviet arms shipments to Arab states. He is also reported to have revealed details of how the US operated its intelligence-gathering satellites.
According to US media reports, some of the classified documents may have found their way to the Soviet Union, probably in exchange for the emigration of Russian Jews to Israel.