Netanyahu's Wye summit gambit thrusts Pollard issue to forefront
October 26, 1998 - Daniel Kurtzman - JTA
Israel's appeal for Jonathan Pollard's release during U.S.-mediated peace talks last week came as no surprise to Middle East
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors have raised the issue
in countless meetings with Clinton -- and with Presidents Bush and Reagan --
ever since the former U.S. naval intelligence analyst was sentenced in 1987 to
life in prison for spying for Israel.
But no one expected the Pollard issue to come hurtling to the fore as a last-
minute stumbling block to closing the deal last Friday on a new Israeli-
With the agreement signed and Pollard still sitting in a federal prison cell in
North Carolina, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu's gambit to win Pollard's
release will help or hinder his cause.
Clinton rejected the demand to release Pollard immediately as part of a deal
sweetener, but he promised to "review this matter seriously."
The Clinton administration last reviewed Pollard's case in 1996, deciding at that
time not to grant him executive clemency because of the "enormity" of his
offenses, "his lack of remorse" and "the damage done to our national security."
Netanyahu, who had hoped to bring Pollard -- now an Israeli citizen -- back to
Israel, urged Clinton before departing Washington to "find mercy" and release
him. He said Pollard's continued imprisonment was the one disappointment of
the peace talks.
Exactly what transpired in the frenetic, final hours leading up to last Friday's
White House signing ceremony -- and the question of whether Clinton and
Netanyahu arrived at an understanding about Pollard's eventual release --
remains a subject of speculation.
What is known is that the Israelis and Palestinians had reached an impasse in the
negotiations over Israel's demand that the Palestinians arrest Ghazi Jabali, the
Gaza Strip police chief. When it became clear that neither side would budge, the
Israelis and Palestinians cooperated in asking the Americans for Pollard's
freedom in exchange for Israel dropping its demand for Jabali's arrest and
agreeing to release additional Palestinian prisoners.
Some sources said it was the Palestinians who offered to pull the Pollard card in
last week's negotiations. The offer followed a meeting earlier this year between
Pollard's wife, Esther, and senior Palestinian officials.
Netanyahu believed that Clinton agreed to hand over Pollard at a later date, but
the plan broke down when Clinton failed to deliver written assurances and the
story about a Pollard deal was leaked to the press.
While the impact the entire episode will have on Pollard's fate remains an open
question, the immediate public reaction to last week's events painted a bleak
picture, at least for the short term.
U.S. intelligence officials and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on Capitol
Hill were quick to lambast Clinton for even considering Pollard's release.
U.S. attorney Joseph diGenova, who prosecuted Pollard for the Reagan
administration, said releasing him would be "one of the most disgraceful acts
by an American president in the history of this country."
"If the president releases Jonathan Pollard," he said, "his legacy will be: it is
OK to lie and it's OK to spy."
House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), for his part, demanded that Clinton
cancel the review.
"I think it would be a tremendous mistake for the United States to start putting
traitors on the negotiating tables as a pawn, and I hope the administration will
now say they will not, under any circumstance, release Pollard."
American Jewish leaders who have been pushing for Pollard's release voiced
differing views about how last week's events would affect his case.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of
Major American Jewish Organizations, said the negative reaction that erupted
following news of Pollard's possible release was "quite astounding."
"I don't know what impact that will have, but frankly until now nothing else has
helped either, so I don't think you can really evaluate whether this was a setback
One of Pollard's leading advocates over the years, Rabbi Avi Weiss, said he
was particularly concerned by Gingrich's comments, which he said risked
turning the Pollard case into a "political issue."
"I've always felt it was important that the message go to the president that he's
not going to be criticized by the Republican side" for his actions regarding
Pollard, said Weiss, who is the president of AMCHA -- the Coalition for Jewish
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has
taken no official position on the Pollard issue, said he thought the episode was
counter-productive, particularly in the context of the peace negotiations.
"Every time that it surfaces I think that it hurts Mr. Pollard, because what it
does is it brings out the opposition," Foxman said.
Marlene Post, national president of Hadassah, which voted about five years ago
to recommend that Pollard's sentence be commuted on humanitarian grounds,
had a different take.
She said the fact that the subject was raised can only be positive because "it
puts it back on the table, and it means the president is now accountable."
The timing in bringing up the issue, she added, makes no difference.
"Whenever the subject is raised, because of the nature of the subject, there will
be outcries," Post said.
Most of Pollard's advocates in the Jewish community say they wish last week's
events had played out more quietly and without such a public display.
But "we can't rewrite what occurred," said Seymour Reich, former chairman of
the Conference of Presidents.
"The issue is now on the table again with a greater ferocity and we have to
address it. And I still believe the overwhelming sense of the community is that
it's time to let Pollard go and we have to let the White House know how we
feel," he said.