Efforts are underway in Israel to convince Israeli President Shimon Peres to decline the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in June unless President Barack Obama changes his mind and grants clemency to Jonathan Pollard more than 26 years after he was convicted of spying for Israel.
Peres on April 9 sent Obama a personal request asking that he release Pollard on humanitarian grounds. But on Tuesday, Matt Lehrich, a White House spokesman, said in an e-mail to The Jewish Week: “The administration’s position has not changed.”
Lehrich said Obama had received the Peres’ letter and “appreciates hearing his views and looks forward to their next meeting.”
Rabbi Pesach Lerner of the National Council of Young Israel, who has worked for years to win Pollard’s freedom, said of the White House statement: “This response is very unfortunate, to say the least.”
He said efforts to convince Peres not to accept the award, the nation’s highest civilian honor, unless Obama changes his mind would be up to Israelis to pursue. He noted that more than 40,000 Israelis have signed an online petition to that effect. The rabbi added that in the meantime he would continue to “gather more across the board support” for Pollard’s release.
Pollard, 57, returned to his prison cell Sunday after spending 10 days in a nearby hospital after complaining of abdominal pain. He spoke by phone with his wife, Esther, for about two-minutes after his return and she said later that he sounded weak and had found it difficult to speak.
Rabbi Lerner said doctors were unable to learn the reason for Pollard’s abdominal pain and that he was returned to his cell in Butner, N.C., without any medication. He pointed out that Pollard has twice been hospitalized with kidney stones and has other medical problems.
Peres’ letter to Obama was not the first time he has interceded with Obama in Pollard’s behalf. Just a year ago, he hand delivered to Obama a letter from Pollard in which Pollard expressed remorse and begged for his sentence to be commuted.
One day before sending his letter last week, Peres met in Jerusalem with Pollard’s wife, Esther. She reportedly told him that her husband’s deteriorating health was such that it might be too late if Peres waited until June to plead for her husband’s release.
“I ask that you contact Obama today, it will make the difference between life and death — if he’s still alive,” she was quoted as telling Peres, adding that she did not want to become a widow.
Peres’ letter to Obama was hand delivered to Daniel Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel. In it, Peres is reported to have thanked the president for the positive attitude and great friendship the U.S. has demonstrated towards Israel, and emphasized the great concern the Israeli people and the Pollard family have in light of Jonathan Pollard’s deteriorating health. He then is said to have requested clemency based on humanitarian grounds and the fact that Pollard has already served 26 years in prison.
Just a day earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement issued to coincide with Passover, said the “Jewish holiday of freedom should become Pollard’s private holiday of freedom. I will continue working toward his release.”
On April 11, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations renewed its request for Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence. It said its members had visited Pollard in prison several months ago and “came away concerned about his health and the medical challenges he faced. … Given his clear expressions of remorse and pledges regarding his activities upon release, we believe the commutation [is warranted].”
Among those in Israel pressing for Peres to refuse the Medal of Honor unless Pollard is freed is Uriel Ariel, a member of the Knesset who chairs the Knesset Lobby for Pollard. He was quoted as saying that without Pollard’s release, Peres should “consider giving up on receiving the Medal of Freedom from Obama and canceling his upcoming visit with him.”
Rabbi Lerner said he agreed with that position.
“I think it would be a contradiction in terms,” he explained. “I think he would have a problem accepting the Freedom Award when Jonathan is still in prison and when the person giving the award” has the power to change that, Rabbi Lerner said.
“I’d tell him to stay home,” he added. “I’d probably tell him to respectfully decline. The president, the prime minister, the rabbis and a super majority of the Knesset all want Pollard home. Combine that with his ill health and the unfair treatment he has received for more than 26 years and it would be a contradiction for Peres to be up there accepting the award. It would not be good for anybody.”
Meanwhile, one Israeli columnist wrote that should Pollard die in prison, “our whole generation will die just a little. … If he dies, Israel’s relationship with the U.S. will be forever marred.”
“We will all bear the stain of having not helped the man who risked his life to protect Israel,” Yishai Fleisher wrote in the online publication of Yediot Achronot. “When our children will ask us, ‘Were you around when Jonathan Pollard was alive? Why did he die in prison?’ The shameful answer will be, `Yes, I was around and I did not do enough to help him ….’”
“To remind you,” Fleisher added, “Pollard was a U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who passed information to Israel, an ally, about its own self-defense. He was caught and agreed to a plea bargain, and instead of getting two to four years like agents who spied against the U.S. for enemy states, Pollard got life in prison without parole.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote in an editorial that the campaign to win Pollard’s freedom should be done “quietly, behind the scenes, not in public.”
It said the White House’s negative response to Israeli entreaties to release Pollard means that the U.S. “believes that every nation, including Israel, has the right to treat its traitors as it sees fit, and that Pollard’s incarceration is an internal matter that is out of bounds to foreign meddling.”
The Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon last week as saying that the reason members of the American intelligence community have steadfastly opposed Pollard’s release is because of their belief that Pollard had an accomplice. He said the U.S. had offered to release him in exchange for the name of the accomplice but that Pollard had refused. Ayalon is quoted as saying Pollard worked alone. He did not respond to requests for an interview.
But Rabbi Lerner said such talk is irrelevant because Obama has it within his discretion to simply sign clemency papers and Pollard he would be freed. He noted that a letter sent to the court at the time of Pollard’s sentencing by then Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger has never been released and that it has been withheld from Pollard’s own lawyers.
Rabbi Lerner said Pollard did read the letter 26 years ago and that Pollard said there was nothing in it that would justify keeping him imprisoned all this time. But the full extent of the stacks of documents Pollard gave the Israelis has never been disclosed. It reportedly included information Israel used to assassinate a senior PLO official in Tunisia in 1988.
Despite the opposition of the American intelligence community to Pollard’s release, Rabbi Lerner said many former senior government officials have signed letters supporting Pollard’s clemency. Among them are former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Schultz; Lawrence Korb, Weinberger’s assistant secretary of defense at the time; former CIA Director R. James Woolsey; Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Vice President Dan Quayle.