Jewish leaders here expressed conflicted emotions and policy differences this week about reports that President Barack Obama was willing to consider the release of imprisoned Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as part of a last-minute bid to keep alive Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.
“Pollard’s early release should be based on humanitarian grounds and the strong bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Israel,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It should not be intertwined with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict has enough complications that it doesn’t need this one.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he believes Pollard should be released “as a matter of clemency and fairness.” But he added that “if the need to move the peace process forward brings him [Obama] to that decision, we are all in favor of it.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday afternoon that Obama had “not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard.” He acknowledged that there have been talks about such a release, but he said he was “not going to get ahead of the discussions that are under way.”
Carney later revealed that it was the Israelis who suggested Pollard’s release as part of a deal that would keep the two sides at the bargaining table.
“It’s pretty well known that the Israelis frequently raise this issue, and they have raised this issue in our discussions,” he said.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, said it is of little consequence whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue of Pollard’s release because “Pollard is always on the Israeli-American agenda, and always comes up when terrorists are released in the context of an agreement. … An agreement that includes Pollard would be in the political interests of both Obama and Netanyahu.”
Pollard, 59, a former Navy intelligence analyst who was arrested in 1985, has served 28 years of a life sentence for selling American secrets to Israel. Pollard’s supporters contend that the length of the time he has spent in prison is out of all proportion with the sentences meted out to others who committed similar crimes.
The Obama administration just last week was quick to deny reports that Pollard might be released as part of the peace talks. A senior administration official told The Jewish Week on March 24: “Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage against the United States, a very serious crime, was sentenced to life in prison, and is serving his sentence. There are currently no plans to release Jonathan Pollard.”
But early Tuesday there were media reports quoting Israeli officials as saying Pollard would be released as part of a deal in which both Israel and the Palestinians would remain at the peace table into 2015. In return for Pollard’s release, Israel was said to be ready to free the last 26 of 104 prisoners whose planned release last Saturday had been delayed; free another 400 low-level Palestinian prisoners — including women and children — whose release was just a few months away, and freeze settlement construction in all but Jerusalem. The Palestinians in return would reportedly promise not push for international recognition at UN-affiliated agencies as a stepping-stone to statehood. The U.S. and Israel are deeply opposed to such a move, insisting on resolving outstanding issues through direct talks.
Foxman said he believes that “if the Israelis are ready to agree with it, the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community would be supportive.”
Asked why he believes Obama would agree to Pollard’s release, Foxman said: “America has invested an awful lot in the talks by [Secretary of State John] Kerry, and the president in moving the talks forward. If they think the missing ingredient [in continuing the talks] is Pollard, OK.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that although he would like to see Pollard released, “he should be released on his own merit having served all this time.”
Hoenlein pointed out that “people who are strong advocates for him [Pollard] have raised questions about the deal. He himself has expressed reservations, saying he does not want to be released in return for Israel’s release of terrorists.”
That sentiment was echoed by Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, who said that although his organization has worked over the years for Pollard’s release, “we are opposed out of respect for Jonathan Pollard’s own wishes.”
He explained that he has spoken with Pollard more than 50 times during his imprisonment and that “he has urged me to urge Israel not to make concessions of land or to freeze the building of Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] to gain his release.”
Uri Ariel, an Israeli cabinet member from the hardline Jewish Home Party, told Israel Army Radio Tuesday that Pollard had also told him he opposes such a “shameful deal” because it involves the release of men convicted of killing Israelis in terrorist attacks.
Elliott Abrams, a top Mideast advisor under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, wrote on his Pressure Points blog that while he favors Pollard’s release, the proposed plan “sets a very bad precedent,” namely releasing “someone who spied on America in order to free foreign terrorists…Where does it stop?”
But Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a longtime advocate for Pollard’s release, said despite Pollard’s wishes “it is time to let him go.
“If that is what it takes to continue the [Israeli-Palestinian peace] discussions, then it should happen,” he said. “And I think he will accept that. Time has passed and it’s time to get him out. It shouldn’t be done this way, but I’m glad he [may be] getting out.”
Fred Lazin, professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University and a visiting scholar at the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University, said it would be a “wonderful thing” if Pollard is released, but he questioned why the U.S. has kept him imprisoned for so long.
“The fact they kept him so long has nothing to do with him being Jewish or anti-Semitism,” he said. “I think there is more there than we know about.”
Lazin said he “cringes” when he hears what some of the Palestinian prisoners did who are being released — some were involved in the murder of Israelis — “but if their release keeps the talks going, why not free them.”
Asked about the tough talk from the Palestinians — who on Tuesday announced they had started the process to sign agreements with 15 international agencies and organizations and would pursue joining more because of Israel’s failure to release the prisoners on Saturday — Lazin said he is “not optimistic” the peace talks would succeed.
Should Obama release Pollard to keep the talks going, Lazin said, he would see it as a “desperation move.”
Reich said he found it “surprising” that Netanyahu would agree to release so many Palestinian prisoners — including 14 Israeli Arabs imprisoned for terrorist attacks — and to freeze settlement construction outside of Jerusalem.
“But he was anxious to continue the talks, so that is what he is doing,” he said. “He had to swallow hard and accept it. I can’t explain it. I have to believe that the prime minister thinks it is worthwhile for the peace process to continue. The Palestinians have not given anything in exchange, unless there is something on the table we haven’t seen.”
Steinberg said Netanyahu was prepared to accept the deal he had worked out with Kerry “because he wants to avoid a huge clash with the United States and doesn’t want to be blamed for the failure of the negotiations. Netanyahu doesn’t want to end his second term in office with the status quo in place.”
He said the prime minister is aware of Israel’s growing international isolation and the strategic threats it faces.
“He has enough political support in the government and … is interested in a two-state framework of some kind.”
Asked what would happen if the talks fail, Steinberg said there has been much talk of a Plan B in which Israel would unilaterally establish its own borders.
“I don’t see this entirely divorced from Netanyahu’s own views,” he said. “But the first step is to reach an agreement. The release of prisoners and a [settlement] freeze shows that Netanyahu wants to find a way to do a deal.”
But he also stressed that he is opposed to the release of Pollard “as a quid pro quo for releasing Palestinian terrorists. The two sets of circumstances are entirely different. I see this as a cynical move designed to quiet Israeli criticism of the fourth such release of terrorists during the Kerry negotiations. … I consider the comparison between Pollard and terrorists to be immoral, even if politically expedient.”
Steinberg added that should the talks collapse, Netanyahu would seek the support of the U.S. as it draws its own borders.