To Help a Spy

Yossi Melman - The Jerusalem Report - April 4, 1991

During the Gulf War, Carol Pollard sent a letter to former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, begging him to reconsider his position concerning her brother Jonathan. In her letter she argued that the war shed new light on his espionage activities for Israel. She was referring to the fact that Pollard had provided his handlers with secret information on Iraq's plans to develop missiles and chemical weapons.

Legal experts assumed that Weinberger's memorandum to the court that " It is difficult for me to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant," played a major role in the life sentence given Pollard by U.S. District Court Judge Aubrey Robinson.

But Weinberger refused to reconsider. Pollard's family and friends may have been cast down by the response, but they were expecting it. They are however, both disappointed and puzzled by the behavior of the Israeli government.

Since 1984, when the American Navy intelligence analyst was recruited, and especially after he was exposed a year later and sentenced in March 1987, Israeli governments have been playing an ugly and hypocritical game. The Peres-Shamir-Rabin-Arens national unity government apologized to the U.S. without admitting its responsibility. The official government posture was that the recruitment and running of Pollard in the U.S. had been a "rogue operation" and they cooperated with U.S. investigators. But despite their denials it is clear that all the four leaders and intelligence chiefs were well aware that Israel was indeed running a well-placed source in America.

Their decision to collaborate with the U.S. was unprecedented: never before in the annals of espionage had a sovereign state, after benefiting from its spy, abandoned him - and provided the incriminating material as well. Ariel Sharon, industry and trade minister at the time, once revealed that Yitzhak Shamir told the cabinet in a discussion on Pollard: "You need to know how to sacrifice the man for the greater goal."

At the same time, to solve their consciences, the intelligence community and the government backed the establishment of a public committee, which has collected $2 million to cover the Pollards' legal and other expenses. It is understood that 80 percent of the money comes from the budget of the Israeli government. [

Justice4JP Correction

: The Public Committee is a front for the Israeli government, headed by a government operative, fully funded by the Israeli government, and mandated to serve the interests of the government exclusively, not the interests of Jonathan Pollard. Jonathan Pollard is not funded by the Committee and the attorneys hired by the Committee serve the interests of their paymasters, not Pollard's.]

There were even some unofficial attempts to explore the possibilities of a multi-sided spy swap, with suggestions that if Israel were willing to release Marcus Klingberg, a senior Soviet agent held since the early 1980s, the Eastern bloc would release a Western spy imprisoned in Czechoslovakia in exchange for Pollard.

The public committee and Pollard's friends and family believe, the Gulf War has opened a window of opportunity. Pollard's case and his motives, they hope, will now be better understood by the decision-makers on Capital Hill and the American public - even if his deeds are deserving of opprobrium. However, in order to advance his case the Israeli government itself must make a formal appeal to President George Bush to exercise his prerogative of executive clemency on humanitarian grounds. (Of course, if the appeal is unsuccessful, a new approach will have to await a new president.)

In 1954, the Egyptians arrested a dozen local Jews for spying for Israel. Two were hanged, others were acquitted or released, but four were sentenced to long prison terms. Consecutive Israeli governments did not lift a finger. They rotted in jail for 14 years until they were released in a prisoner exchange after the Six-Day war. Pollard seems to be a victim of the same tendency of the authorities to abandon its agents.

However, after five years of official denials, there are signs of a new approach in Jerusalem. Foreign Minister David Levy has given Israeli diplomats in Washington the go-ahead for some discreet lobbying in Congress and in the Jewish leadership on behalf of Pollard. The case has been briefly and hesitantly raised by Israeli officials. But all this effort is too little and might be too late.

What is required is a serious and courageous gesture to demonstrate that Israel will not shirk its moral obligation to stand by those who have rendered the state service.

Yossi Melman is co-author of "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community," published by Houghton Miffin.