Kenneth R. Timmerman publishes a monthly investigative newsletter, The Iran Brief, available on-line at www.iran.org, and writes on security and intelligence issues for Reader's Digest.
The "official" version, as reported by both the Washington Post and the Washington Times in their Saturday editions, was that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a "last-minute demand" that Clinton agree to release convicted spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, so Netanyahu could "return home as a hero" with Pollard in his airplane.
Pollard was convicted of spying on behalf of Israel in 1985 and has already served thirteen years of a life sentence for his crimes. Over the past eighteen months, members of Netanyahu's government and prominent American Jews have made Pollard's release a cause celebre, arguing that he is being unfairly singled out at a time when other convicted spies are being set free or receiving light sentences.
But there is more at stake in this story than the merits of Pollard's release, or the judgment of whether he deserves to remain in a U.S. jail for his crimes.
Simply put, the issue is the truth.
Israeli government sources party to what happened at the Wye Plantation are telling a very different story from the one put out by State Department spokesman James Rubin or by the "anonymous White House sources" quoted by the Post. The Israeli sources claim that President Clinton made a solemn promise to Netanyahu at 4 AM on Friday morning at Wye River, only to break it several hours later after a CIA delegation rushed to the scene to urge the President not to release Pollard under any condition.
Rubin came down on the Israeli version of events like a ton of bricks.
"Any suggestion by any quarter that the president made a commitment to release Jonathan Pollard is inaccurate and false," he told reporters at Wye. Clinton himself, referring to Pollard at the signing ceremony, said he had merely promised that he would "review this matter seriously."
The Israeli version should come as no surprise to anyone versed in the President's economical use of the truth. They say the President agreed at 4 AM on Friday morning to a request - not from Netanyahu, but from PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat - to release Pollard as part of a prisoner exchange, which until then had been the last stumbling block to concluding a deal at Wye. Arafat saw Pollard as the best money of exchange to get Israel to drop its demand that the Palestinians extradite to Israel 36 Palestinians wanted on terrorism charges, so they could be tried in Israeli courts.
Key among the 36 persons sought by the Israelis was the commander of the Palestinian Police, Ghazi Jabali. The deal put on the table by Arafat was to exchange Pollard for Jabali. To break the logjam, at 4 AM on Friday morning, Clinton agreed, Israeli sources say, to Pollard's release. Several hours later, after the CIA jawboned him, he backed out.
And when Netanyahu balked at Clinton's reversal, and threatened to walk out without an agreement, the President turned around and threatened him that the U.S. would recognize a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in May - the equivalent to dropping a nuclear weapon on Netanyahu and his supporters.
Jabali's 36,000-strong "police" force is heavily armed, and is widely viewed by the Palestinians themselves as forming the core of a Palestinian army. Under the Oslo accords, the Palestinians had agreed to limit this force to 24,000, and to limit their weaponry to assault rifles, at most. Instead, the Palestinians are equipping them with heavy weapons and anti-tank rockets, and have plans to recruit up to 50,000 men.
Last October, Jabali himself confirmed what the Israelis had been claiming for some time, namely that the Palestinian Police Academy had become a repository for wanted terrorists, including more than 150 members of Hamas and of George Habash's PFLP. Twenty-five of these new recruits were on Israel's list of 36 terrorists whose extradition had become a key issue in the peace talks. One of them, Osama Abu Tayeh, was convicted in 1995 to a twelve year jail sentence by a Gaza security court for having carried out a series of murders of Israelis. Five weeks after his conviction, he managed to "escape" from jail, and in October 1996, he was recruited by Jabali to serve in the Palestinian police.
Since then, the Israelis have traced orders given to Hamas terrorists who have carried out bloody attacks inside Israel to Jabali himself, which is why they have put him on the top of their most wanted list.
Netanyahu won election as Prime Minister on a platform of improving Israel's security. It would have been political suicide for him to drop the extradition demand against Jabali and the other known terrorists, without getting significant concessions in exchange - especially since President Clinton was insisting that the CIA be used as jail keepers in Gaza to ensure that convicted terrorists were kept behind bars.
Now that the CIA has become thoroughly enmeshed in the political negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, it obviously felt it could put its own negotiating demand onto the table: that Pollard remain behind bars.
Arafat was right when he said the agreement the two actually signed was "only temporary and has been late." That is why Netanyahu looked so glum at the East Room signing ceremony on Friday. All the tough issues, including the extradition of known terrorists, have been left for some later date - conveniently, after the U.S. elections this November.
• Return to home page