Too late for Netanyahu visit, Pollard letter finally arrives at White House

February 11, 1998 - Walter Ruby - Special to the NJ Jewish News

More than three weeks after Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, promised the membership of his umbrella body that a letter would be dispatched to President Bill Clinton urging the release of Jonathan Pollard on humanitarian grounds, a letter from conference chair Melvin Salberg was finally received by the White House.

Pollard allies intended that the letter should arrive in time to augment a plea for Pollard's release that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to deliver during his talks last month with Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. Conference officials say the group's views were communicated to the White House in time for the Netanyahu talks, a claim that is being disputed by Pollard. Meanwhile, the letter has not been seen by conference members, and only arrived at the White House after questions were raised as to whether it was sent at all.

The letter, which the White House Office of Records and Management confirmed receiving from Salberg on Feb. 6, was the one that a consensus of the 55-member conference had enjoined Salberg and Hoenlein to send to Clinton after a Jan. 12 meeting.

The one-page undated letter, signed by Hoenlein and Salberg, was read to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. The letter argued that Pollard had "paid his debt", and "expressed remorse" for his crime.

"We respectfully request you to consider this humanitarian plea to allow Mr. Pollard to start anew and rebuild his life," the letter reads. "As a matter of compassion we believe immediate action to be warranted."

Following the Jan. 6 meeting, Hoenlein told the New York Jewish Week, "Before the week is out, a letter will be sent to Clinton making the strongest possible humanitarian plea on behalf of Jonathan Pollard," who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1986, and has spent 12 years in prison. Hoenlein did not respond on Feb. 6 to a call to his office in which he was asked specifically when the letter on behalf of Pollard had been dispatched. The White House confirmed that the Feb. 6 letter was the first correspondence that it had received from Salberg during 1998.

On Feb. 5, Hoenlein told the Jewish News that the letter on behalf of Pollard had been dispatched "immediately" after the Jan. 12 Presidents' Conference meeting. Salberg explained that the letter had been sent to the White House, but had not been distributed to members of the Presidents' Conference, as is customarily done with such communications, because "we wanted to allow the president time to respond."

He added, in a reference to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal now consuming the White House, "In light of events since our [Jan. 12] meeting, this issue doesn't have the same priority in Washington as some others.

"According to Salberg, there is "no set policy" as to when he and Hoenlein will make the text of the letter available to members of the Presidents' Conference.

Leading members of the conference, stretching across the political spectrum from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the dovish former president of the conference, to Morton Klein, the hawkish president of the Zionist Organization of America, last week expressed anger and incredulity that it had apparently taken Hoenlein and Salberg such a long time to dispatch the letter on behalf of Pollard after having given assurances to them and other members that the letter had already been sent.

Schindler, Klein and a number of other leaders of organizations affiliated with the Presidents' Conference also expressed consternation about Salberg and Hoenlein's refusal to release the letter publicly, or even share the text of the letter with conference members.

In cutting language, Schindler issued a Feb. 8 statement, saying, "The White House records must be flawed. I cannot believe that Mel Salberg and Malcolm Hoenlein would be so disdainful of the near unanimous will of our constituency clearly expressed so many weeks ago, or so callously indifferent to the plight of a fellow Jew who has been languishing in prison so many years beyond his just desserts. "

Several days earlier, Schindler had said he was "really angry" about what he termed "stonewalling" by Salberg and Hoenlein over the letter on behalf of Pollard. He noted that at a meeting on Dec. 21, the past chairs of the Presidents' Conference, who form a kind of "inner cabinet" of the body, had already enjoined Salberg and Hoenlein to send such a letter on Pollard's behalf; and that he found it peculiar that Hoenlein insisted that the entire 55-member conference needed to discuss the issue again at its Jan. 12 meeting before acting.

Citing Hoenlein's public promise at that time that the letter would be dispatched within a week, Schindler stated, "I had assumed if they said they had sent it, that they had really sent it. I am puzzled why the letter has not been released. This was decided weeks ago." Schindler expressed concern that the tardy dispatch of the letter and the refusal of Salberg and Hoenlein to make it public would send a message to Clinton that the Pollard case is not an issue of vital interest to the Jewish community.

"At a time when several Israeli cabinet members have visited Pollard in prison [at Camp Butner, NC], we need to keep this issue on the front burner, "Schindler said.

Informed that the White House had confirmed that a letter from Salberg had arrived only on Feb. 6, Klein responded simply; "Well now we know the truth." Earlier Klein had said, "I assumed when we agreed to the letter at the [Jan.12] meeting, that it would go out quickly. How long does it take to send a letter?" he added. "Customarily when a letter is sent by the conference, member organizations get a notification from Malcolm either with the entire text or with excerpts. We have gotten nothing on this letter, and I am outraged about it."

Neither Hoenlein or Salberg returned calls to this reporter after the White House acknowledged receipt of a letter from Salberg on Feb. 6, but a day earlier both had defended their behavior concerning Pollard. Both men emphasized that it was necessary to withhold the text of the letter from conference members so as to prevent it from becoming public and embarrassing the president at a moment when he was distracted by the Lewinsky scandal.

Asked on Feb. 5 how the White House had been made aware of the conference's stand on the Pollard matter, Hoenlein insisted that "it was raised directly with them and in written form."

Had it been raised directly with Clinton? "No," Hoenlein responded. "We raised it in the White House and we sent him the letter. We were in the White House ourselves; we spoke to them about it; we raised the issue and made clear our position in writing as well."

Insisting that he had sent out four letters in the past month including letters to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat (following up on Presidents' Conference resolutions on such issues as anti-Semitism in the official Palestinian media and the killing of U.S. citizens by Palestinian terror, as well as the letter on Pollard) Hoenlein said that he and Salberg had sent out the Pollard letter "immediately" after its adoption. He added, "We have done all the things that were mandated in a very timely fashion much more than anybody could have believed all the things that were asked of us."

Why was the letter not sent to conference members in a timely fashion? He responded, "It will be done in a timely fashion and the chair will determine when it is timely. We aren't going to send out [the text of the Pollard] letter until the White House has had a chance to answer.

"Hoenlein argued that if the letter is sent out to member agencies of the conference, "It will be published. There is no confidentiality with a letter like that. We feel that as a matter of courtesy and given all the tensions happening now, that we give the White House a chance to respond. Our purpose is getting [Pollard] released, not getting publicity."

Hoenlein expressed surprise at Schindler's expression of anger at the delay in providing the letter to conference members, stating, "I explained it to Alex,and he seemed in full agreement. I explained that we did it two ways; that we raised it in the White House and that we've done it in writing." He added, "We are giving the White House a reasonable amount of time. We aren't going to hold the letter forever."

So when will they release it? "When the chairman [Salberg] has determined we have given them enough time."

Hoenlein argued that it is tactically important to wait before going public with the Pollard letter, because "Our purpose is to get it to the president" rather than White House surrogates, and "to get the president's attention. Obviously, the president has been preoccupied. We want to get a response from him. We've been successful in the past in doing it this way. Our interest is in serving Jonathan Pollard's purposes, not the purposes of PR or of getting exposure."

Hoenlein denied that he was concerned about a backlash against the Jewish community by an irate Clinton if the conference appeared to be challenging him while he was down. "No," Hoenlein said. "It's not a question of any backlash. It's a question of what you want to come out of it. If you want effectiveness, you've got to do it in a way that is maximally effective, which means you need the president's attention to it." He denied there had been any pressure from the Netanyahu government on the conference not to press Clinton concerning Pollard, remarking, "We didn't ask them, and they didn't say. On the contrary, [Israeli cabinet ministers] have been visiting Pollard. Why would they say 'Cool it'?"

Salberg defended the delay in releasing the Pollard letter to conference members, stating, "We have full faith in the members of the conference, but there have been instances where statements have been made [by conference members] that suit a particular point of view that may not be the point of view of others." He added that no decision has yet been made on when to release the letter to conference members, adding that the conference has "no set policy" about making such letters available to the member agencies. He said, "We were given the sense of the conference in its meeting and we followed through on it."

In the meantime, Schindler's and Klein's criticisms are widely shared among their colleagues. Many Jewish leaders interviewed for this article assert that the issue was one of accountability the conference had decided the letters should be sent, and it should have been sent in a timely way. Moreover, they said, it should have been available to conference members, and to the wider Jewish audience.

Seymour Reich, another former conference chair and a longtime staunch backer of freedom for Pollard, responded sardonically to the news that the White House had confirmed receipt of the letter on Feb. 6, quipping; "Gee whiz, slow mails." He added that he "would have preferred that the letter had gone out earlier," but added, "I'm sure Mel and Malcolm thought the timing of the letter was appropriate." Several days earlier Reich had said he accepts that Salberg and Hoenlein have the prerogative of withholding the letter from the membership for a time after it has been sent to Clinton, but said he believes it should be released within two weeks of time of dispatch. He noted, "Of course, it depends when the letter was sent. If it went out today, that would take some time. If it went out a week or two ago, that would be a different story."

David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, remarked on Feb. 5, "I'm sure there would be great curiosity here to know what is in the letter, as the issue of Jonathan Pollard has been a hotly debated question [in the AJCommittee]. So we would be eager to know what is being said in our name." Harris added, "I don't personally recall in recent memory" another case where the Presidents' Conference leadership refused to allow its member agencies the right to see copies of an official letter sent to the White House.

Mark Seal, associate executive director of HIAS, noted that the flap about the letter to Clinton came only months after Hoenlein was widely castigated in the Jewish media and from some conference member agencies for often operating on his own without informing the members of important decisions and sometimes putting his own political spin on conference positions. Seal praised Salberg, who became conference chair last summer, for "making a superhuman effort" to bring Hoenlein into greater compliance with the will of member agencies, but said, "I would be curious to see this letter myself. We have been outspoken in asking for accountability when there is a decision [by the conference] to take an action. Salberg has encouraged people to demand it."

Kenneth Bialkin, another former conference chair, expressed incredulity over the Pollard letter flap. "I believe someone is misinformed here, because I can't imagine that a letter being sent on behalf of the conference would not be made available to the members of the conference," he said. "If a letter is sent, it becomes a matter of public record."

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was puzzled as to "why such a letter would have to be confidential." He said that the leadership of the Reform movement recently met with Salberg and Hoenlein "to discuss with them issues of the governance of the Presidents' Conference," and to express the opinion that the conference "can do better in a variety of ways. We wanted clarity as to how policy decisions are made, and stressed the need for total and complete openness on budget issues." Yoffie said it is "too early to tell whether an appropriate response has been made."

Pollard himself, who had been asserting for more than two weeks that the letter on his behalf was never sent to the White House, reacted furiously to the news that a letter from Salberg had been received by the White House as late as Feb. 6. Interviewed by phone from the Butner prison, Pollard told the Jewish News, "It is only thanks to the members of the press and people like Alex Schindler that the letter was sent at all. I find it interesting that it still has not been publicly released."

Pollard said he knew as early as two days after Netanyahu's Jan. 20-21 visit to Washington that it was a "cold-blooded lie" that the Presidents' Conference letter had already been dispatched, affirming that "Netanyahu's people told us it hadn't been received [by the White House]."

Pollard said he had been informed by Israeli sources that when Netanyahu met Gore on Jan. 21, the Israeli prime minister appealed for the United States to free Pollard on humanitarian grounds, and cited the Presidents' Conference letter as evidence that the American Jewish community supported that step. According to Pollard, Gore responded that he knew of no such letter from the Presidents' Conference to Clinton. When asked by this reporter why Gore had not heard of the letter, Hoenlein responded, "The letter was sent to Clinton, not Gore. There is no reason why Gore should necessarily know about it."

Pollard said that a person close to him had been informed by Hoenlein personally that he and Salberg had not been able to raise the Pollard case during a meeting they held with Clinton at the White House on Jan. 20, hours before Netanyahu's meetings with Clinton, because they had literally been given "30 seconds" by the president and then were dismissed with a promise to reschedule the meeting.

Informed that reliable sources had contradicted that account asserting that Hoenlein and Salberg had actually met for about 30 minutes with Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Council chief Sandy Berger and their top aides, holding a broad-ranging discussion on United States-Israel relations Pollard responded angrily. "If that account is true and they had 30 minutes with the president and didn't raise my case, then the damage they did is incalculable," he said. "By not mentioning my name, they sent a very clear message to the president that my case is not to be taken seriously, and that consequently, any letter that they sent to the president subsequent to that meeting is doomed to fail."

Hoenlein told this reporter that he and Salberg had indeed raised the Pollard issue during their meeting in the White House, though not directly with the president.

According to Pollard, "The White House closely follows what goes on in the Jewish community, and they understand that this letter was coerced [from Hoenlein and Salberg]. When it arrives, Clinton's [negative] response is a given. He knows what he can do with impunity. This is a sham, a beau geste, a flourish designed to protect them against future charges of indifference. The way that [Hoenlein and Salberg] handled this will do more damage to me than if they just hadn't done anything at all."

Pollard, who has often accused the American Jewish establishment of indifference to his fate, concluded, "This would be disheartening if I had expected more from them, but this is business as usual." Earlier Pollard had said he is considering going forward with a beit din against the Presidents' Conference on charges that it has been derelict by not actively seeking his freedom. Pollard had put preparations for the religious court proceeding into abeyance last month after the conference's promise to send a letter on his behalf to Clinton.

Asked about Pollard's threat of a beit din against the Presidents' Conference, Salberg responded, "I have no comment on Jonathan's statements. They threatened a beit din. What does one say? We feel we have been supportive of Jonathan's position in the past. I feel I have been personally supportive of his position in the past, and I feel that we have acted properly." Salberg affirmed Hoenlein's account that the Pollard matter had been "raised with the White House" the day he and Hoenlein met Clinton, but declined to say with whom they had raised it.

Walter Ruby is on the Editorial Board of "The Long Island Jewish World".

See also:
  • Pumped Up Over Pollard
  • Pollard Family Says Letter to Clinton Never Delivered
  • Jewish group urges Clinton to release Jonathan Pollard