When Israel finally confirmed in May that Jonathan Pollard was its agent, Pollard and his supporters were heartened by what they described as the first significant step the government had taken in years to win his release. But nearly two months after the announcement, despair is beginning to return. Pollard and his advocates say the government has not followed up on its acknowledgment. Instead, they claim, the government is consumed by the negotiations with Washington over the implementation of the interim agreement with the Palestinians.
They say the result is that a golden opportunity to start fast-track talks with the US to secure Pollard's release is being frittered away. "That's where it started, and it has gone downhill ever since," Pollard's wife, Esther, said during a visit here this week. "Now, Jonathan is more alone than ever before." Esther Pollard said the message she has been hearing from senior government officials is that this is not the right time for the issue of her husband's release to be raised with the Clinton administration. Relations with the White House and State Department are tense, and US officials appear impatient in dealing with Israelis, the officials say. As a result, Pollard has been put on the back burner.
But Esther Pollard said she had been given some hope: She had been told by officials that her husband's case would be raised with the US as the last element in an agreement on IDF redeployment in the West Bank. As one official was said to have explained it, the US would make some last-minute demands for concessions from the Israelis that would include a full handover of 13.1 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority. In response, Israel would demand Pollard's release. But Wednesday's inner cabinet meeting, the Pollards said, dashed those hopes. The couple were furious that during the ministerial deliberations - in which a vote was expected - the Pollard release was not raised.
The Pollards are convinced they were lied to. "The fact that the inner cabinet was ready to vote shows their duplicity," Pollard said from the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina. "There is no linkage. You don't sign an agreement before the agent is home. If the cabinet had voted on it, my bargaining or linkage would have gone out the window." The inner cabinet decision was postponed, a government source said, to protest the UN vote that raised the PLO's status somewhat at the UN. Other sources maintain that a decision was not made because of the continuing gaps between the US and Israeli positions on redeployment.
These latest tensions between the Pollards and the Israeli government characterize their relationship over the past five years. For the first few years following Pollard's arrest by FBI agents outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington in 1985 and his being sentenced to life in prison a year later, he was repeatedly told by Israeli officials that they would work for his release. At first, Pollard believed them. But by the early 1990s, he came to the conclusion that he would never leave his jail cell without waging a fight. That meant declaring his independence from the Israeli government and developing his own strategy, based on high-profile lobbying in Washington and Jerusalem, as well as establishing a formal bond between himself and Israel.
So, in mid-1995, Pollard demanded Israeli citizenship. Then-interior minister Ehud Barak refused the request, so Pollard took his case to the High Court of Justice. Barak eventually relented when he realized that Pollard's petition to the High Court could force Israel to answer embarrassing questions regarding its accountability to the convicted spy. Pollard received his Israeli passport in January 1996.
Last year, Pollard returned to the High Court. This time, he demanded that the court order the Israeli government to reveal who was in charge of his case and what steps had been taken to secure the release. Pollard's aim was to force Israel to renounce its earlier claims that he was part of an operation never approved by government leaders. The Israeli declaration acknowledging him as an agent, engineered by cabinet secretary Dan Naveh, came on May 11, over the objections of Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and his aides. The Pollards were pleased and expected subsequent negotiations between Israel and the White House. These would presumably also deal with US demands for a full Israeli account of Pollard's activities in the early 1980s and a return of all the documents he had transferred to his Israeli handlers.
The Pollards say that never happened. The government has kept the Pollard issue in the news, with steady visits to his jail cell by ministers touring the US - the last was by Science Minister Michael Eitan last week. But, the Pollards say, no one has actually approached US officials to begin talks on his release. "They [Israeli officials] don't do anything unless the knife is against their throats," Esther Pollard said. "Our major fight for Jonathan's freedom is with our own [Israeli] government. We don't even get near the Americans because the Israelis don't engage with the US."
Naveh, whom Esther Pollard met yesterday, stresses that Israel has not shelved the issue, and that the government is operating according to a well-conceived plan. But Naveh is cautious, and prefers keep his answers general. "The government is fully committed to the release of Jonathan Pollard," he said. "The essence of the announcement is a major step. We are doing certain things to free him. We can't say everything in public."
Naveh would not confirm the Pollards' assertion that Jonathan's release had been promised as an element in the negotiations with the White House for an IDF redeployment. He also did not deny that the redeployment issue was holding up Israeli efforts to win his release. "I don't want to go into tactical questions; speaking about them might hurt Pollard," he said.
Naveh was also evasive about whether Israel and the US are currently in dialogue regarding the release of Pollard. "Israel will do everything it can vis-a-vis the American government regarding Pollard's release," he said. Another government official involved in the Pollard issue was more direct.
He said the government announcement that acknowledged Pollard was an authorized spy was a mistake. "In the end, it didn't make one bit of difference," he said. "They simply don't want to deal with the issue in Washington." Instead, the official said, the Israeli strategy must be to stress the humanitarian aspect of Pollard's case. He has been in prison for 13 years, more than most people convicted of espionage, including those who have spied for the Soviet Union.
This official added that the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was the first to send ministers at every opportunity to visit Pollard. Israeli leaders appeal for Pollard's release at every high-level meeting, he said. Esther Pollard has easy access to Netanyahu, and met him on Wednesday. "I don't understand this anger toward us [by the Pollards]," the official said. "We followed their suggestions and did what they asked for. What do they expect now - that we stage an Entebbe-style raid to free him?"
Esther Pollard appears agitated when told this. "Jonathan has been on the Israeli agenda at every meeting," she said. "But he was always point No. 20 out of 20 points. The message to the Americans is then clear: that Israel raises the issue [only] for domestic consumption." Some US intelligence experts say the intelligence community in Washington no longer opposes Pollard's release. The lobby that wants to keep Pollard in jail consists mostly of those who dealt with the case in the mid-1980s: then-defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, Navy Secretary Bobby Ray Inman and US prosecutors. "It is a straightforward political matter," said Angelo Codevilla, international relations professor at Boston University, who served on the staff of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence during the Pollard arrest and conviction.
In briefings to the Senate committee on Pollard's activities, Codevilla said, US officials never claimed that he gave Israel intelligence methods and sources. Instead, he said, Pollard relayed data, analysis and photographs, the sort of material that Israel was receiving from the US anyway. Codevilla says Pollard angered his superiors and eventually US government leaders by his efforts to undermine what he regarded as a pro-Iraqi policy by Washington in the early 1980s.
"There is no political opposition [to Pollard's release] that I know of in the US," he said. "The only ones whom Pollard's release would anger would be such people as [former secretary of state George] Shultz and Weinberger. "They are angry because he committed the worse possible sin in Washington: He was right before his time. The US policy of aiding Iraq was a disastrous policy. The authors of that policy were Shultz, Weinberger and Inman."
Codevilla says the Israeli announcement that Pollard was an authorized agent is only the first step in a complicated process. Now, he says, the Israeli officials must stress to their US counterparts that Pollard's release is a priority. "The Israeli government has to say it at every step of the way," he said. "The message must be: 'You want this from us. We want this from you.'"