Release Pollard on Humanitarian Grounds

January 15, 1997 - David Twersky: Editor - Metro West Jewish News

Count Jonathan Pollard among those voicing a growing disappointment with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not because Bibi is pushing ahead with the Hebron (and other Oslo-mandated) redeployments, but because the Israeli leader doesn't appear willing to include Pollard's release on the shopping list Jerusalem usually presents to Washington as part of any major diplomatic give-and-take.

From his prison cell in North Carolina, Pollard, the ex-Navy analyst who illegally supplied Arab-related U.S. military secrets to Israel, sounds like a man who wants the Israel-Palestinian peace process to go forward. After all, his fate may be linked to the Hebron redeployment and the continuing unfolding of the peace process.

The reason is that Pollard's Israeli lawyers and other allies have been lobbying Netanyahu and his top aides to link Pollard's release from prison in this country to the Hebron deal.

In statements relayed to the Jewish News via his wife, Esther Zeitz Pollard, Pollard says his lawyers met with David Bar-Illan, a senior aide to Netanyahu, to press their argument that Pollard's fate be linked to the impending agreement on a Hebron redeployment. The Jewish News has verified the authenticity of Pollard's remarks.

In a medium-security prison in Butner, NC, serving out a life sentence, Pollard says he is furious at Netanyahu's Justice Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, who this month proposed that Israel trade for Pollard, swapping an American in an Israeli prison for the convicted spy. According to this plan, Pollard would serve out his life sentence in an Israeli prison. A new Transfer of Prisoners Law would enable Hanegbi's proposed swap -- in theory.

In practice, Washington would likely oppose it. Even more important, Pollard wants no part of it.

Hanegbi's proposal is "half baked," says Kenneth Lasson, who is professor of law at the University of Baltimore.

The prisoner exchange balloon was floated just a few months after reports of a "secret deal" between Netanyahu and President Bill Clinton that would free Pollard after the American elections.

Zeitz Pollard says that, like the "secret deal," Hanegbi's proposal (which she also compared to "the Rabin era spy swap") is intended to give the impression that something is happening. "If there is ever a deal to get Jonathan out, it will happen first and you'll read about it afterwards," she says.

But both Zeitz Pollard and her husband reject the Hanegbi proposal on its merits: "The Hanegbi deal is wrong because for Israel to legitimize the sentence is to legitimize what the sentence tried to do to American Jews and Israel."

Says Jonathan Pollard: "I want to go home to Israel as a free citizen of the Jewish state."

B'nai B'rith International president Tommy Baer is one of the Jewish leaders who maintains fairly regular contact with Pollard. Baer told the Jewish News that Pollard "is opposed to any arrangement to serve out his life term in Israel. He wants to go as a free citizen of the State of Israel. He continues to push for commutation and that's what the State of Israel should be pushing."

The Pollards are also angry at Netanyahu's ambassador here, Eliyahu Ben-Ellisar. In December, Pollard sent Ben-Ellisar two letters asking him to visit the North Carolina prison and take a letter expressing Pollard's remorse to Clinton in time for the Christmas pardon season. The ambassador never answered the letters.

"Our level of confidence in the people with whom we are dealing is very low," Zeitz Pollard says of the Netanyahu government.

To be fair, she has nothing good to say about the Peres government, either. Jonathan Pollard says that when it comes to freeing him, both parties behave as they do in the peace process -- "Labor can't and Likud won't."

If the Pollards expected more of Netanyahu, it's in large part because the government's guidelines include a pledge that "The government of Israel will use all means at its disposal to bring home the Prisoners of War and Missing in Action and all those who worked for the security of the state, and will insist on this point during negotiations with all relevant parties."

"All those who worked for the security of the state" was language designed to cover Pollard.

So why is Netanyahu not acting forcefully on Pollard's behalf? He is involved, says Baer; he just hasn't been successful.

But the Pollards disagree. They think nothing's in the works and the various proposals are all designed as distractions.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the recently retired president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, visited Pollard several weeks ago, along with Israel Singer of the World Jewish Congress.

Despite being "not overly involved" in Pollard's cause, Schindler told the Jewish News, he went to show his support for commutation and to underscore the point that "not just the religious right is concerned," but also "left of center" types, like himself and Singer.

Schindler backs commutation "on purely humanitarian grounds," because "12 years of incarceration are enough."

Some Pollard advocates argue that the convicted spy was right to act because Washington was withholding vital information from Israel about unconventional and terrorist threats. In contrast, Schindler doesn't excuse the espionage. "I hold no brief for what he did, but there comes a time when the punishment is enough."

Significantly, Jonathan Pollard admits his guilt and expresses his remorse. If he didn't, people like Schindler, Rabbi Azriel Fellner of Livingston's Temple Beth Shalom and other "moderate" Pollard supporters, would be unable to champion his cause. Zeitz Pollard says Jonathan's "immune system is shot" and that he has served more than twice the time of anyone with a similar offense, a point also emphasized by Lasson, who believes the "gross miscarriage of justice" in the Pollard case starts with "the severity of the sentence."

Like the Pollards -- but unlike Baer -- Schindler says "there is no move afoot to get him out." Like the Pollards, Schindler suspects "both governments might be uncomfortable about having him out."

Washington could oppose freeing Pollard for a variety of reasons, including the fact that he may have been used to cover up the consequences of espionage by others.

Pollard supporters are wondering whether Netanyahu is reluctant to fight for Pollard because of his close links to Moshe Arens. Pollard says he saw three signatures on his "tasking orders" -- Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres and Arens.

Netanyahu was Arens' deputy; the older man was Bibi's party mentor. "Arens' fingerprints are all over my case," Pollard says.

An alternative theory is that the Netanyahu government has enough problems with Clinton. "Bibi's people do not want to highlight differences with the Clinton administration," Pollard told us.

Schindler says Pollard's "case puzzles me." Pollard's deal with the prosecutors was broken after the federal judge received a still-confidential letter from then Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger. Schindler says the Weinberger letter remains central because "every time a pardon comes up it is refuted by that letter." A tightly guarded "secrecy" surrounds the government's reasons for opposing efforts to let Pollard go. Schindler wonders: "What is in that letter?"

Curiously, opposition to a Pollard release has not relented even in the wake of the 1992 report that Weinberger had, during negotiations over the pardon he received from president George Bush, announced that he would not object if Pollard were freed.

Letting Pollard go is "a difficult issue for this administration," Baer agrees. "Something in the record hasn't been disclosed," he says. Barring that, he can't figure out why the defense community is so hostile to Pollard. (Like Schindler, Elie Wiesel and others, B'nai B'rith supports commutation on humanitarian grounds.)

According to Lasson, the U.S. government is finally set to release a victim impact statement that will either make the case for, or put the lie to, the alleged severity of the damage Pollard inflicted on U.S. interests. "They won't be able to show great damage," he predicts.

The difficulties Pollard faces in Washington are not new to him. What's getting to Pollard, though, is what he sees as the lack of effort to free him by the Israeli government.

Zeitz Pollard says the American Jewish leadership's and successive Israeli governments' lack of protest to the repeated "humiliating" White House refusals to pardon or commute "sends a clear message to the White House."

She says she understands Israel is preparing to release more Palestinian prisoners ("murderers") and that should serve as an opportunity to demand Pollard's release. "If they link Jonathan to Hebron, why give everything and get nothing in return?"

But she fears the Israeli government "is taking a powder."