Pollard Is on the Table in Mideast Talks

Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman - Newsday - April 19, 1991

Israel is set to demand release of the jailed spy

In the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that inevitably accompanies the fitful start of a Mideast peace process, Israel will be asking for a sensitive concession from the United States: the release of Jonathan J. Pollard, the American imprisoned for life as a spy for Israel.

This is a major change of attitude by the Israeli government, which has played a double game since Pollard's arrest outside the Israeli embassy in Washington in November, 1985. Israel immediately apologized to the United States and disbanded the ultra-secret Science Liaison Bureau, which ran Pollard as a spy within U.S. Naval Intelligence. The Israeli government tried to evade its responsibility, however, by speaking of a "rogue operation."

The truly shocking step was the government's cooperation with US prosecutors. Never before in the annals of espionage had a sovereign state, after benefiting from a spy, abandoned him so totally by providing the incriminating evidence. Many purloined documents were returned to Washington, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reportedly told his cabinet in a discussion on Pollard: "You need to know how to sacrifice the man for the greater goal."

At the same time, to salve their consciences, the Israeli government and its intelligence community backed the establishment of a public committee, which has collected $2 million to cover legal and other expenses of Pollard and his wife, who also was jailed. It is understood that about 80 percent of the money comes from the government. Several officials in Shamir's office have been assigned responsibility for coordinating efforts on behalf of the convicted spy.

According to informed sources, Israel's foreign ministry has now instructed its diplomats in the United States to ask for Pollard's release in their contacts with members of Congress and Bush administration officials. For the first five years of his imprisonment, diplomats were forbidden from mentioning Pollard to U.S. politicians and Jewish communities.

Community leaders are beginning to take an interest, too, after initially feeling that the espionage case had thrust them into the embarrassing dilemma of torn loyalties between the United States and Israel. Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, last month visited Pollard in the Marion, Ill., federal penitentiary. Reich spoke of "extremely harsh prison conditions," including solitary confinement. As for the increased readiness to discuss the case, he said: "Things have changed, and more Jewish organizations will put it on the agenda in the near future."

Pollard's supporters are especially hopeful that Vice President Dan Quayle and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger will take up the case in parallel with the Mideast peace process.

"This is a good time to break the ice," said attorney Alan Dershowitz, who is continually pleading on Pollard's behalf for a more lenient sentence. "Keeping Pollard in jail as though he were a spy for the Soviet Union is a very bad way to gain the confidence of Israel." Supporters had hoped that a multi-sided spy swap could be arranged, where Israel could win Pollard's freedom by releasing senior Soviet spy Marcus Klingberg while an Eastern European country would free an American agent. There were then rumors of a spy who worked for the United States, jailed for 1 years in a closed-door trial in Israel. "If there is an American spy in custody, it pulls the rug out from under the U.S. claim that Israel double-crossed the U.S.," said Amnon Dror, spokesman for the pro-Pollard committee in Tel Aviv, "since the U.S. has been doing the same."

No deal was struck, however, and at age 36, Pollard remains a living reminder of the darker side of the U.S-Israeli relationship: the fact that the two allies do not share complete trust and keep an espionage eye on each other.

Pollard's supporters insist that his motives can be better understood in the wake of the Persian Gulf war, because he was giving the Israelis information on the non conventional weapons systems of Iraq and other nations - data that he believed should have been included in the official intelligence exchange dating back to 1951.

By this logic, Iraq's defeat underlines the overriding identity of interests between Washington and Jerusalem. Even Pollard's relatives admit that he acted wrongly, but they hope President George Bush will see that the spy's heart was in the right place and agree to grant executive clemency. This, they believe, would be both a humanitarian gesture and an attempt to clear the decks of damaging disputes before tackling the Mideast peace process head-on.

Dan Raviv, a CBS news correspondent, and Israeli journalist Yossi Melman are authors of "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete history of Israel's Intelligence Community" (Houghton Mifflin).