In from the cold

May 14, 1998 - The Jerusalem Post - Editorial

It took 13 years, but on Monday the government finally admitted what everyone knew anyway: Jonathan Pollard was an authorized Israeli agent and not a volunteer in a rogue operation. That act should be the first step in a process of moving away from the denials and obfuscations of the past decade, dealing with the matter in an honest and forthright manner, and finally winning Jonathan Pollard's release from prison. If the government now handles the issue properly, his release might be not far off.

The damage caused by the Pollard Affair has been extraordinarily heavy. Not that friendly nations and allies do not spy on each other - on the contrary, although few will admit it, such activity is almost expected. In many cases, when spies in friendly countries are caught, the matter does not even come to the attention of the media. The nations involved usually prefer to deal with it confidentially between themselves, coming to an arrangement while quietly expelling the foreign agents involved.

What made the Pollard Affair different was the recruitment of an American Jew to provide Israel with highly classified documents stolen directly from the intelligence department of the US Navy, where Pollard was employed as a civilian analyst. Such an action struck a raw nerve in the US and in the American Jewish community because it touched upon the old smear that Jews are prone to dual loyalties and cannot be trusted in sensitive positions in government or the military. The potential harm to the career advancement of many Jews in America from the substantiation of such allegations due to Israeli actions, and the anger this caused among the American Jewish leadership, is not something any Israeli government can afford to ignore.

While the recruitment and handling of Pollard was stupid and damaging in the first place, the subsequent behavior of Israel after his exposure was dismaying as well. Pollard served as an Israeli agent directed by persons who held top positions in the Scientific Liaison Office, a clandestine official unit operating under the auspices of senior government ministers. It is difficult to believe that the information Pollard supplied, which included highly coveted secret satellite photographs that the US had refused to give Israel, was not noted by top-ranking intelligence officers who knew of its source. Nevertheless, Israel treated Pollard as if he were a private individual who had volunteered information on an ad hoc basis from the moment that Pollard, with the FBI closing in on him, was denied entry into the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

The public position that the most senior government ministers - including Yitzhak Shamir, Moshe Arens, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres - chose to adopt was that Israel bore no direct responsibility for the affair, even as they quietly paid for Pollard's legal defense and sent intermediaries to Washington to push for his release. The tactic they selected was based on the assumption that winning Pollard's release required subtle diplomatic actions that would not be perceived as provocative by the US administration. Pollard was never officially admitted to have been an Israeli agent and appeals for his release were consistently presented in humanitarian terms.

Those efforts, over 13 years, did not succeed in obtaining Pollard's release. There are now indications that a different approach might be in order. Subsequent US administrations have treated the Pollard Affair as the extremely serious act of an American traitor. Until now, the Clinton administration has refused to even consider any of Israel's appeals for Pollard's release, while the highly covered parade of Israeli politicians visiting Pollard in prison only made matters worse. The White House and the American intelligence community have consistently insisted that ending the affair first required a clear statement of Israeli responsibility and full cooperation in examining what intelligence documents Pollard handed over to Israel.

Now that the government has officially acknowledged Pollard's role as an agent of Israel, the US and Israel can deal with the matter as two friendly governments working to repair intelligence relations that were damaged by a spy affair. The US reportedly has a long list of demands, including the return of all the documents Pollard gave Jerusalem before his arrest in 1985, renewed commitments that American citizens will not be recruited for Israeli espionage, and limitations on Pollard's freedom upon release. On the other hand, the indications are that Washington wants to put the Pollard Affair behind it. He has been in jail since 1985 and his intelligence information is clearly dated. There is also pressure for his release from American Jewish leaders, who could help Vice President Al Gore win Jewish support for his presidential campaign in 2000.

Obtaining Pollard's release will obviously require secret and intense negotiations involving some give and take. With Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week visiting the US along with a retinue of his most senior advisers, these negotiations can begin immediately. A serious effort on the part of the government now can finally bring about the sight of a smiling Jonathan Pollard, clutching his Israeli passport, landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.