After President Barack Obama again refused to include imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard on his Christmas clemency list, supporters of Pollard’s release are conflicted on how best to proceed.
There are some who believe Pollard, who has already served 28 years of a life sentence, should be freed in light of recent revelations that the U.S. spied on the e-mails of senior Israeli leaders, including the prime minister and defense minister.
“Is this how friends treat each other?” asked Israeli Transportation and Road Safety Minister Israel Katz. “Pollard was arrested for much less.”
Others believe Israel should demand Pollard’s release in return for making concessions in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
“I do think that in the context of negotiations with the Palestinians something could be done that would provide the basis for his release,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “I have always said and I do believe that this is the option that would make a difference. …”
And still others believe Pollard’s release must not become entangled in politics.
“Pollard’s release should not be put on political terms but on humanitarian terms,” said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Presidents’ Conference and a longtime champion for Pollard’s release.
“It would be wrong to use Pollard as leverage in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations,” he continued. “It would be detrimental to Israel and would put Israel in a bad light. The negotiations have to stand on their own. It would be a bad mistake if the prime minister or any of his ministers would use this as a wedge in the talks. It would not be in Israel’s interests because it elevates Pollard to a political issue rather a humanitarian issue. He has served his time, he is not well, he pleaded guilty. … That should be the basis for his release.”
Based on Israeli media reports, it appears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shares Hoenlein’s view. Israel’s Channel 2 reported Monday that Netanyahu has told Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel would free from prison six Israeli Arabs who hold Israeli IDs only if Obama freed Pollard. Israel has been reluctant to free the men as part of the fourth round of prisoner releases agreed to as part of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Kerry, according to Channel 2, is considering the offer. He is scheduled to arrive in Israel Thursday for another round of shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians.
In an earlier interview, Hoenlein told The Jewish Week he believes the White House should understand the “political risk” Netanyahu is taking in freeing a total of 104 Palestinian prisoners, all of whom have served at least 19 years; most were convicted of killing Israelis in terrorist attacks prior to the Oslo Accords in 1993.
In the third round of Palestinian prisoner releases that took place this week, 26 prisoners were freed.
This week’s report about Pollard followed other media reports that also linked Pollard’s release to the prisoner exchanges. But the White House has shot down the reports, citing a statement Obama made before his visit to Israel last March in which he said Pollard had “committed a grave crime.” The White House added that the president “has no intention of releasing him.”
And the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Israel Army Radio Sunday that the reports were fallacious.
“There’s no direct link between Pollard and the [peace] negotiations or the prisoner release; these are different issues,” he said flatly.
Obama’s continued hardnosed stand on Pollard puzzles and troubles Jewish leaders here and in Israel.
“At this point, it verges on vengeance,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “There is no rational reason for the president to continue to keep him.”
Foxman added, “The majority of American Jews believe the time has come [to release Pollard]. But the irony is that the more we talk about it, the more difficult it is for it to happen. I personally do not think it should be tied to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. …This is something that should be quietly dealt with on a bilateral basis. There should not be threats and recriminations.”
But Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said he “used to be very much against the Jewish community agitating vis-a-vis Pollard. … But I have changed my mind with the revelation that America was spying on everyone at every opportunity.”
American, German and British newspapers reported last month that a 2009 document provided by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that more than 1,000 organizations and individuals were monitored from a U.S. facility in southwest England. That included the e-mails of four senior Israeli officials, including the prime minister and defense minister.
That report, Rabbi Skolnik said, combined with “America’s holier than thou” approach when it came to Pollard, convinced him that Pollard should be freed — “especially since he has served so long and is in ill health.”
“It is the height of hypocrisy not to grant clemency at this point,” Rabbi Skolnik added.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, agreed that Pollard, 59, should be immediately released — but purely for humanitarian reasons.
“Jonathan Pollard’s release should stand on its own merits without regard to how the peace process is going or the relationship between the intelligence agencies,” he said.
Rabbi Saperstein pointed out that Pollard has “had to endure a disproportionately long sentence and has medical problems. In visiting with him again just a few months ago, the unfairness [of the prison term] was vividly reaffirmed.”
He said he has personally raised the issue of Pollard’s release with both Obama and Vice President Joe Biden “whenever we have had the opportunity — and we will continue to do so.” But he said each time he raised it, Obama simply replied that he “understood the importance to us of this issue — but he has not given a substantive response.”
At the time of his arrest in 1985, Pollard was a civilian intelligence analyst for the Navy. He pleaded guilty in 1987 to passing classified information to Israel and was sentenced to life in prison.
But Rabbi Saperstein and others pointed out that Pollard has been made to serve a “disproportionately long sentence compared to those who committed comparable crimes, based on what the public knows. If there is an explanation [for such a long incarceration], [Obama should] give it to the public in broad terms and explain the damage that was done. But not having done so, the claims for commutation remain distinctly strong and we urge the president to reconsider.”
Netanyahu met last week with Pollard’s wife, Esther, to update her “on the non-stop efforts to release Jonathan,” according to the prime minister’s office. Esther Pollard said after the 45-minute meeting that it was “positive and constructive.” She declined a request for an interview.
Netanyahu applauded a Knesset petition prepared last week calling for Obama to free Pollard, but he stressed that he does not believe the U.S. spying report should be the basis for such action.
The Knesset petition was signed by every faction in the Knesset last Wednesday following a lengthy discussion of the issue that was prompted by the spying revelation.
Arab Knesset members signed their own petition calling for Pollard’s release, but it included a demand that Israel free Palestinians in Israeli prisons.
And Gilat Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists and held prisoner in Gaza for five years, wrote his own letter calling for Pollard’s release.
“After Israel has released terrorists with blood on their hands as a gesture to the Palestinians, a return gesture is all that is being requested,” Shalit wrote to Obama. “I believe, and I think that like myself all of the people of Israel believe that the prime minister’s request for such a simple gesture, the release of Jonathan Pollard, is owed to us by right and is not a favor.”