Saying the case of Jonathan Pollard is “like a bone in the throat” of relations between Israel and the United States, an Israeli cabinet member asked Capitol Hill lawmakers not to criticize President Bill Clinton should he order the convicted spy’s release after 13 years in prison.
“I met with senators and congressmen and everyone said the meetings went well,” said Yuli Edelstein, the minister of immigrant absorption.
It was the first time an Israeli minister has come to the United States to lobby publicly on Pollard’s behalf.Edelstein, who said he was honoring lawmakers’ requests not to identify them, said his message was that “even if you believe he [Pollard] was terribly guilty, after 13 years we would say enough is enough.”
Pollard, a civilian working for naval intelligence, pleaded guilty to spying for Israel. In recent years he has expressed remorse repeatedly for his actions and said he now realizes that what he did was wrong. Clinton has denied several requests for clemency.
But Edelstein said he hopes that will change now with Israel’s acknowledgment earlier this year that Pollard was its agent. “We made a tragic mistake with this whole story,” Edelstein told The Jewish Week. “He was an agent and he was recruited by people who worked for the Israeli government in high-ranking positions.
“But it’s a different government in Israel now and a different government here. It is high time to get the story off the agenda; the only way to do that is by releasing Pollard.”
Edelstein said he also told lawmakers that in Israel, Pollard is “not a political issue and I hope that in this country he does not become a political issue. I hope that when the president takes a position to release him, [Clinton] will not be attacked on political grounds or by the right wing or the left.”
Although he added that he understood “there is not a single representative on the Hill who can bring about his release,” he believed the trip was important to “lay the groundwork.”
Edelstein said it was “unfortunate” that he arrived in town just as the report about alleged presidential misconduct was sent to Capitol Hill by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. He said he had planned his visit to coincide with the return of lawmakers following the summer recess.
Nevertheless, he said he was given about a half-hour by each of the lawmakers with whom he met.
Edelstein’s trip was criticized by Pollard as being “nothing more than a publicity stunt.”
“How egregious and cynical and pointless this gesture is,” Pollard said in a phone interview from the federal penitentiary in Butner, N.C. “We told them [Israeli officials] to come quietly and to have AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] lead the way. We also said there must be linkage [between his release and] the peace process.”
Despite Israel’s acknowledgement of him as a spy, Pollard maintained that the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was now adopting “the same policies of smoke and mirror that previous governments had adopted. … The Israelis still believe they can get me on the cheap and they can’t. They have to work to get me home.”
Edelstein said he did meet with officials of AIPAC and cleared up some misinformation about the Israeli government’s position on Pollard. “I told them that we were going to secure the release of an agent, that [Pollard’s actions] were a mistake and that we are responsible for them,” he said. “It was my intention to give them the facts. They will have to decide if they want to get involved.
"I think that in general it’s important that Jewish organizations have a clear stance on the issue. We don’t have time for public campaigns. His release is long overdue.”
An AIPAC official said Pollard was not the focus of the meeting, which concentrated on the deteriorating economic situation in Russia, its potential impact on emigration and aliyah to Israel, and what that might mean for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Asked if AIPAC would take a position on Pollard, the official replied: “We are not the address on this issue. There is a division of labor in the Jewish community and the Conference of Presidents [of Major American Jewish Organizations] handles this issue.”
Asked about Pollard’s criticism of his visit, Edelstein said: “I feel Jonathan is very desperate … and anything that does not bring about his release immediately seems like the wrong thing. It would have been simple for me to have stayed at home, but I want to do my part and I sincerely hope it will help in some way to bring about his release.”
Edelstein said he had also secured a pledge from B’nai B’rith to do whatever was necessary to help win the release of Pollard. He said Israel would consider its next steps after he returned to Israel and reported to Netanyahu.But Pollard was pessimistic.
“I have been lied to and betrayed [by Israeli officials],” he said. “They tell me all these things and then they don’t do them. So, I’m davening [praying]. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I have left. I’m davening.”