Jewish groups keeping quiet as battle over Pollard intensifies

January 12, 1999 - Daniel Kurtzman - JTA

WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (JTA) -- As President Clinton nears a decision on whether to grant clemency to Jonathan Pollard, opponents of the convicted spy are coming out of the woodwork in a concerted, unyielding effort to ensure that he remains locked up for life.

Pollard's supporters in the Jewish community, by contrast, have opted for a more low-key approach to winning his freedom, recognizing it as a losing public campaign and instead hoping to quietly persuade Clinton with the force of their arguments.

Clinton received recommendations on Pollard's case this week from his senior national security aides, nearly three months after pledging a review at the signing of the Wye peace accords.

All remain adamantly opposed to releasing the former U.S. navy analyst, who is serving a life sentence for handing over thousands of top-secret documents to Israel in 1984 and 1985.

The two top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have also weighed in, urging fellow senators to demand that Pollard remain jailed, as have seven former U.S. defense secretaries.

At the same time, senior members of the U.S. intelligence community are now saying that Pollard did more damage to national security than the public has been told.

Intelligence sources, breaking their long silence on the issue, released new information to The New Yorker magazine this week detailing four major U.S. intelligence systems they say Pollard betrayed. These allegations appear intended to undercut arguments that Pollard's admitted acts of espionage did no real damage to American national security.

Pollard told one of his supporters this week the new charges are "garbage."

The New Yorker said its sources had gone public because they feared Clinton "is about to give in to Israeli pressure to release Pollard."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded Pollard's release during Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in October at the Wye Plantation in Maryland.

A proposed deal for Pollard's release fell apart after the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, George Tenet, threatened to resign if Clinton agreed to the plan.

Clinton has twice denied clemency to Pollard -- in 1993 and 1996.

In the face of the hostile and highly public anti-Pollard campaign, the Jewish community has remained comparatively quiet. A small cadre of supporters has been actively pressing the issue, while most of the organized Jewish community has remained on the sidelines.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, B'nai B'rith and the National Council of Young Israel have all sent letters to Clinton and to White House counsel Charles Ruff asking for leniency and for an opportunity to discuss the Pollard issue.

And three of the nation's most prominent Jews have asked for a meeting with Clinton to discuss the case.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman and Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, all of whom have close ties to the president, were preparing a letter this week asking Clinton to delay any decision until they have a chance to state the case for releasing him personally.

"The crimes of Jonathan Pollard were contemptible, and we reject any effort to justify or rationalize them," a draft of their letter states.

"At the same time, in light of his many years of incarceration and his repeated statements of contrition, we would wish to address to you our hope that as president you could consider the redeeming quality of mercy by invoking compassion at the human level."

Outside those efforts, there has been little public clamor in recent weeks among Pollard's supporters for his release -- and certainly nothing to match the vitriol of the opponents. According to some Jewish leaders, however, their reticence results from both practical realities and tactics.

The issue of clemency has long been a source of division in the Jewish community. Over the years, several Jewish groups have waged various campaigns to win Pollard's freedom, but most efforts became bogged down by controversy.

While a consensus has formed in the community in recent years that Pollard should be released on humanitarian grounds, "for many it's not a pressing issue," said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents who serves as co-chairman of the group's Pollard committee.

"There are some people for whom Pollard's fate is a matter of intense concern," but it would be "hard to say that it's a major priority for the organized Jewish community," said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The council, an umbrella body of local and national Jewish organizations, supports Pollard's release but has elected not to lobby publicly on the convicted spy's behalf.

The issue also presents something of a Catch-22. Each time Pollard's supporters in the Jewish community have drawn public attention to his case, the opposition has only grown louder. For that reason, advocates say they have opted to press the issue behind the scenes.

"The more drama that's associated with this, the worse it turns out to be for Pollard," said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

"There have to be patient, persistent efforts, not highly dramatized and celebrated," said Baum, who co-chairs the Pollard committee of the Conference of Presidents.

"This is an issue that needs to be done quietly," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has taken no official position on Pollard. A flood of letters or newspaper ads would serve no purpose at this point, he added, because "the administration knows well where the community is."

At the same time, Pollard and many of his closest supporters have expressed their frustration in recent weeks that the Jewish community is not doing more on his behalf.

His wife, Esther, said in an interview that nobody is asking Jewish organizational leaders to "march a brass band down Pennsylvania Avenue. Nothing could be more counterproductive than public grandstanding at this point."

But she added: "Given the threat to due process to Jews in America, given the blatant disregard of justice, one would have expected a far more vigorous response from every sector of the American Jewish community and Israel.''

While the specific recommendations Clinton received this week from the departments of State, Defense and Justice, as well as the CIA, remain under wraps, they are certain to make clear the extent of opposition Clinton will have to overcome within his administration if he opts for leniency.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for her part, told Clinton she believes there are no compelling foreign policy considerations to justify releasing Pollard.

White House officials have said they will make sure the full array of opinions are heard before the president makes a decision, but it remains unclear whether Jewish advocates will have an opportunity to make the case for Pollard's release personally.

It is also unclear when Clinton will arrive at a conclusion, although some administration officials have said they believe he may wait weeks or even months before deciding.