Pollard's Release Is a Key to Peace Deal

October 28, 1998 - Richard Chesnoff - New York Daily News

Why are so many people so outraged that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for Jonathan Pollard's freedom at last week's painfully slow but ultimately successful Mideast peace talks?

Obviously, I wasn't there when Bibi threw the Pollard chip at President Clinton during the last hours of the conference. But I do know that Washington disclaimers notwithstanding, it wasn't the first time the two have discussed clemency for the ex-spy for Israel as part of the price of progress on Mideast peace.

In fact, Pollard has been on the table at almost every Bibi-Bill direct discussion. And as I reported in this space earlier, Pollard's fate was recently discussed in talks between Israeli officials and Secretary of State Albright's senior staff.

On each occasion, the Israelis have made it clear that above and beyond the humanitarian issue, freeing the former U.S. naval intelligence officer from his life sentence and allowing him to leave for Israel would make it a lot easier for Netanyahu to sell the peace plan to Israel's right wing — for whom Pollard's freedom is a major issue.

Clinton has a special talent for giving the impression he has said one thing — when he means something different. Netanyahu is nobody's fool. If anything, despite the lack of personal warmth between the two, they share a certain slickness. Still, it's conceivable that Netanyahu thought he had agreement in principle for a presidential pardon, when in fact, he didn't. Well, not exactly, and not quite yet.

Nonetheless, for people to be shocked that Bibi would link Pollard's freedom to progress on peace is, at best, sophomoric. "What's next," asks former CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates, "giving a pardon to get a terrorist out of jail as part of a deal in the Middle East?" Actually, yes! Part of the Wye River pact has Israel releasing 750 Palestinians — none of whom is in jail for traffic violations.

I never cease to be amazed at the animus the Pollard case arouses in certain Washington quarters. Yes, he committed a serious crime when he gave the Israelis U.S. data on Arab military systems. Yes, it was right to punish him — but within reason. Pollard's not the first American caught spying for an ally. Yet he's the only one ever given a life sentence — despite a plea-bargain agreement that the U.S. clearly reneged on.

And newspapers like the Daily News and journalists like myself have been stonewalled by the government every time we have tried to interview Pollard under reasonable journalistic rules.

The pound-of-flesh people continue to claim Pollard profoundly damaged U.S. security and betrayed U.S. agents. But they never give details. More than 13 years later, all the talk remains just that. Joseph diGenova, the federal prosecutor in the case, says that freeing Pollard would be "an outrageous undercutting of American security interests." Why? Spell it out.

Some of the anti-Pollard choir is just off the wall. TV blow-hard John McLaughlin got so carried away on Sunday that he equated Pollard with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who gave nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union! Even "McLaughlin Group" regular Pat Buchanan — no great friend of Israel — blanched at that.

So what happens now? The deal at Wye was a good one for everyone — Israelis, Palestinians, Clinton. But there's a lot harder dealing ahead. With help from his new foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, and from the Labor Party, Netanyahu is ready to buck the extremists and right-wingers to push the deal through. Arafat seems girded for similar combat.

Let's hope Clinton can move the process (and mercy) ahead by finally freeing Pollard.