Israel cries 'uncle' on Pollard: will it matter?

May 29, 1995 - Professor Eugene Narrett

The media in Israel and some major Jewish organizations in America were quite excited May 12 when the Netanyahu government issued an overdue and formal acknowledgement that Jonathan Pollard had worked as an Israeli agent during 1984-5. Since the Israeli embassy in Washington shut its doors on Pollard in 1985 a succession of administrations had refused to admit the connection, a failure that many claim is the main reason Pollard has languished for 13 years in a Federal Maximum Security Prison in North Carolina. Setting aside for a moment one's happiness at a positive development for a man more sinned against than sinning, it is useful to examine the latest turn in the diplomatic game that has consumed Pollard's middle years. There is more at stake than one man's freedom.

In 1984, Pollard was a US Navy intelligence officer when he became aware that the US was withholding from Israel information it had gathered about the chemical and nuclear weapons programs under development in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. In a "Letter of Understanding," Washington had promised to share all such data with Israel yet this crucial data was withheld. It is curious that there needed to be a formal letter mandating such sharing (Israel is America's only ally in the region), and why US intelligence services would not honor it. Part of the answer may be that a weak Israel is a dependent one, more readily pressured to adapt itself to Washington's shifting strategic priorities.

Pollard also thought it strange and dangerous that the data was being withheld. "I was so scared about what was being withheld," he told a reporter in May '98, "and the more I dug, the more horrified I became about the extent of the betrayal." Pollard's concerns were exacerbated when a superior officer told him, "Jews are too sensitive about gas." That office cries out for ventilation.

The information Pollard passed along to Israel prompted the development of the "sealed room" approach to civil defense that has become an important part of Israeli security and deterrence. Remember: Pollard did not take any information about American security or weapons, only intelligence about Israel's enemies.

The harshness and inequity of Pollard's sentence may be gauged by comparison with the case of Peter Lee, a Taiwan-born physicist who stole and gave to Communist China information on the laser technology used in America's nuclear weapons systems. For this major and dangerous breach Lee was sentenced (March 26) to one year in a halfway house and some community service. Equality before the law broke down badly in the Pollard case.

Knowing Pollard could not be convicted of treason, Justice Department attorneys arranged a plea bargain. But after Pollard waived his right to a jury trial and pleaded guilty, former Secretary of State Weinberger intervened with a memo to the judge branding Pollard a major security risk and blaming him for the exposure and death of American agents abroad, problems actually caused by Aldrich Ames. In putting Pollard away, Weinberger wished partly to obscure his own role in the Iran-contra affair and in arming Saddam Hussein. Adding to the stench of this injustice is the fact that Weinberger himself was pardoned in 1992 by the departing President Bush.

The official story now is that America all along has been willing to release Pollard if only Israel would acknowledge that he worked as its agent (for the Israeli Defense Department's "Science Liaison Bureau," Lakam is the Hebrew acronym). Now this belatedly has occurred, thanks largely to a lawsuit brought on Pollard's behalf to Israel's Supreme Court.

It is a symptom of an ingrained flaw that Israeli governments so long have feared to acknowledge Pollard. The question that should have been raised publicly and from the first is why the information was withheld at all. The focus should not have been Pollard or Israel or American Jews but the treachery of America's policy makers. While most of the American Congress and the American people are very favorably disposed toward Israel, the State Department and Executive Branch under both Democrats and the GOP pose as friends while failing that standard in practice. Why did they need to humiliate Israel in public as the price for letting Pollard go? Why not a quiet release as is routine in spying between allies? It would have been difficult for the Reagan Administration, particularly as it was embroiled in Iran-Contra to brazen out withholding intelligence data from Israel. Yet Israel's governments feared to offend its sugar daddy, preferring to let Pollard rot.

This fearful posture has not significantly changed, the lethal farce of the "peace process" reflects this, and so does the new hurdle now being raised to Pollard's release. With the desired admission finally on the table, it is reported that "secret and intense negotiations" including a "lengthy list of US [government] demands," all of them specious, must precede Pollard's release. Although the information Pollard passed along concerned Arab nations (several of whom are on America's list of terror states) and is now long out of date, Washington demands return of all the documents. It also wants a promise Israel will not conduct any more intelligence in America, though America carries on such activities throughout the West and in Israel.

So Pollard remains in behind bars, and Israel must jump another hoop. It is clear that what the current Administration wants is another favor, namely, a boost in 2000 for Al Gore who intends to pass himself off as a 'friend' of Israel. Gore already is collecting photo ops of himself and American Jewish leaders and politicians. These photos are cold comfort next to Gore's eagerness to globalize every situation on the planet and have the UN administer Israel like another Bosnia, the end result of the "peace process."

The issues in Pollard's case have been misplaced from the start. For all that he should long ago have gone free, Americans should consider the price being extorted and whether the time hasn't come for insisting on a full and frank and public discussion of the background of the case. In crying 'uncle' in public, Israel has made an unwarranted concession and such concessions are no longer affordable, if they ever were.

Eugene Narrett is a Professor of English who teaches at Boston University.