Jonathan Pollard: The Persian Rug The US Wants To Sell Israel...Again

Susan L. Rosenbluth, Editor - The Jewish Voice and Opinion - June 1999 Edition

The election of Ehud Barak as Israel's Prime Minister has once again raised the question of whether or not President Bill Clinton will find a way to release Jonathan Pollard, the Naval intelligence officer who was sentenced to life in prison for spying for Israel. There is reason to believe the President might "give" Mr. Pollard to Mr. Barak as a present for having beaten Benjamin Netanyahu.

In Ha'aretz, journalist Akiva Eldar noted that, a few weeks before his assassination, Yitzhak Rabin told a group of close associates that, at his last meeting with Mr. Clinton in Washington, the President promised that when negotiations on the final status agreement with the Palestinians began and talks with the Syrians were renewed, he would grant Jonathan Pollard a pardon. Mr. Rabin himself was considering granting a general amnesty in honor of Israel's 50th anniversary.

Mr. Eldar reported that one of the people closest to Mr. Rabin at the time says that Mr. Clinton promised he would do everything he could to give Mr. Pollard "as a present" to Mr. Rabin. Equating Barak with Rabin

During the 1999 election campaign, diplomatic sources were reporting that the Clinton administration was already drafting plans to begin multi-track peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and Israel and Syria. The US goal is to have peace agreements signed before Mr. Clinton leaves office in January 2001.

"The expectations from Barak are similar to those the US had of Rabin when he was elected in 1992. At least in the initial stage, there will be a big push to move things forward," a diplomatic source told Steve Rodan of the Middle East Newsline.

The source told Mr. Rodan that the Clinton administration is prepared to demonstrate generosity to Barak. "They said this could include a decision to allow a Congressional effort to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, $1.2 billion in additional defense funds in connection with the Wye River accords, and the release of Mr. Pollard," said Mr. Rodan.

The news did not overwhelm Mr. Pollard's wife, Esther. "Over the years, Washington has routinely sold the same Persian carpet-Pollard-over and over again to Jerusalem for increasingly higher prices, but never delivers," she said. Window of Opportunity

In Israel, Dr. Aaron Lerner, director of the Independent Media Review & Analysis new agency, suggested that the few weeks before Mr. Barak takes office would be the best time to seek Mr. Pollard's release.

Dr. Lerner pointed out that gaining Mr. Pollard's freedom is one of the few issues that enjoys "wall-to-wall support, from Meretz to Moledet." The problem, he pointed out, is that the issue is also one of the few that divides Israel from some the state's best friends in the US. He recalled that some of Mr. Netanyahu's best friends in Congress were furious with him when he pressed for Mr. Clinton to honor his promise to release Mr. Pollard at the Wye conference.

"As long as Pollard remains in prison, he will remain a sore point in US-Israel relations," said Dr. Lerner. Dilemma

The dilemma is that while securing Mr. Pollard's release would ultimately help US-Israel relations, the prime minister involved in making the deal will definitely lose points with some key American legislators and security officials.

Therefore, said Dr. Lerner, managing to secure Mr. Pollard's release during the current "care-taker government" period would be a "win-win" situation. "Pollard would be free, but the newly elected Barak would not have to bear any backlash for the move," said Dr. Lerner.

The move, however, depends on the American-Jewish community that supports the Oslo Process as envisioned by Mr. Clinton. "This group is not just close to the Clinton Administration; it is at the very center of the Clinton Administration," said Dr. Lerner. "Hopefully, this group will see fit to present Barak-and the people of Israel-with the best possible pre-inaugural gift: the release of Pollard." Worrying about Vanunu

But last month, Mr. Clinton took a step that seemed almost certain to infuriate Mr. Pollard's supporters in the US and Israel. In a letter to 35 Congressmen, dated April 22, Mr. Clinton expressed concern about the plight of Mordechai Vanunu, a former employee of an Israeli nuclear facility who was convicted in 1986 of espionage and treason for telling The Times of London about Israel's nuclear secrets.

Mr. Clinton's letter was addressed to Rep. Lynn Rivers, (D-Mich.), who had written to the White House expressing her concern for Mr. Vanunu. Ms. Rivers asked the President to intercede on behalf of Mr. Vanunu whom she called "a man who lingers in prison simply for his belief in global peace." She maintained he told his story to The Times "as an act of conscience...not for personal gain."

Her words must have touched Mr. Clinton, who wrote to her: "We have followed the matter of Mr. Vanunu's imprisonment closely. In particular, we are concerned about reports pertaining to the conditions under which he is held. I...share your concerns about the Israeli nuclear program. We have repeatedly urged Israel and other non-parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to adhere to the treaty and accept comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards."

The letter's tone and content represent a divergence from the traditional American approach toward Israel, which has never officially acknowledged the existence of its nuclear weapons program. The Jewish state has always insisted it would not be the initiator of nuclear warfare in the region.

Some observers noted that the letter came just as the White House was downplaying reports that the Clinton administration refrained from action while China illegally obtained America's nuclear technology. "Insensitive"

"I can't believe the President would send such a letter. These are very sensitive issues. It is so judgmental. He comes to conclusions about his imprisonment and the nuclear proliferation. I can't believe these are his words," Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, told the Forward.

Malcolm Hoenlein, vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called the President's reference to Israel's nuclear program "surprising and disturbing."

"As far as we know, it's unprecedented," Mr. Hoenlein told the Forward. "When we see Iran's nuclear program and the development of weapons of mass destruction in Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, Israel's ability to defend itself becomes ever more important." Forcing Concessions

The executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, Tom Neumann, suggested to the Forward that the letter might be a new way for America to force concessions in Arab-Israeli negotiations. "It's very disturbing to me. It indicates a full-court press to get Israel from different angles," Mr. Neumann said.

The national president of the Zionist Organization of America, Mort Klein, raised questions about the timing of Mr. Clinton's letter, which gained notoriety just days before the Israeli elections.

"One must question the motive of President Clinton's responding on this issue now when we are in the midst of an Israeli election campaign," he said.

Not surprisingly, the coordinator of the US Campaign to Free Mordechai Vanunu, Samuel Day, Jr., welcomed the President's letter. Mr. Day's campaign has involved the adoption of Mr. Vanunu by an American couple in order to obtain for him American citizenship.

"I thought [the President's letter] was a good response," Mr. Day told the Forward. "He expressed concern for the well-being of Vanunu and concern about non-signing of the proliferation treaty. I hope he will also persuade Israel to acknowledge it has an extensive nuclear-weapons program and sign the treaty and get rid of its nuclear weapons." Chutzpah

In a prepared statement, the Justice for Jonathan Pollard committee blasted the President's "unmitigated gall." The committee noted that Mr. Vanunu had "betrayed Israel by selling her nuclear secrets to the highest bidder."

"In raising Vanunu to the level of prisoner of conscience, the President demonstrates the same cavalier attitude towards Israeli national security that he has recently demonstrated towards American national security in the Chinese spy scandal-an attitude fueled by a private, unspoken economic agenda," said the release. "In this instance as well, the President's 'concern' for Vanunu and concurrently Israel's nuclear capacity, is driven by an unspoken agenda-one that is designed to deprive Israel of any independent nuclear deterrent capability so as to render her more pliant, more readily controllable."

The committee called Mr. Clinton's concern for Mr. Vanunu "gross hypocrisy." The committee pointed out that Mr. Vanunu, who has shown no remorse for his activity, was sentenced to 18 years, which the Pollard committee called " a relatively light term" compared to Mr. Pollard's life sentence. Still Trying To Spy

During his incarceration, Mr. Vanunu has repeatedly attempted to divulge sensitive information concerning Israel's nuclear deterrence force from his prison cell. Many observers say that, by his activities, Mr. Vanunu vindicated the efforts of hostile Arab and Muslim states, such as Iran, to initiate their own weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.

The Pollard committee pointed out that Mr. Vanunu's behavior stands in marked contrast to Mr. Pollard's. Mr. Pollard was not indicted for treason and has repeatedly shown remorse.

"Jonathan Pollard did not act for financial gain, but, rather, as a bona fide Israeli agent who then received a grossly disproportionate life sentence with no parole," said Pollard supporter Robert Rogoff of Passaic. "His greatest 'crime' was embarrassing Washington by exposing a covert pro-Iraq tilt in US policy. He regrettably broke the law to warn Israel of Saddam Hussein's plan to scorch the Jewish state."

Mr. Rogoff coordinates a charity fund to help pay for Mr. Pollard's expenses in prison, where kosher food, available only at the vending machines, costs $30 per day. To contribute, send a check earmarked for Jonathan Pollard to: National Council of Young Israel-Jonathan Pollard Account, POB 5042, Passaic Park, NJ 07055-5042. Mr. Rogoff can be contacted at (973) 472-3771. "Silly" Letter

The director of the National Council of Young Israel, Rabbi Pesach Lerner, another ardent supporter of Mr. Pollard, found irony in Mr. Clinton's concern for Mr. Vanunu. "The letter can be turned around," said Rabbi Lerner, explaining that Mr. Pollard has also been very ill lately. "It's interesting that no one is concerned about Jonathan's health or the conditions under which he is being held. He cannot even get the appropriate medical treatment which he desperately needs."

Also weighing in against the President's letter was Richard Perle, a former assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Arguing that Israel must be able to take care of its own security needs, he called the President's letter "silly in every respect."

"Is Bill Clinton going to protect the Israelis the way he protected the Kosovars or the way he protected the Bosnians?" he said. Double Standard

Mr. Perle, who is reportedly one of Texas Governor and Republican Presidential candidate George Bush's most important advisors, said Mr. Clinton was treating Israel unfairly, especially when compared to other countries with nuclear programs.

"It's a ridiculous double standard. China's just taken a huge leap forward, and they're complaining about this guy, Vanunu, who's in jail for a crime he's properly been found guilty of," said Mr. Perle.

In Israel, Dr. Lerner said the very people he thought could effect Mr. Pollard's release-the American-Jewish left-was probably more concerned with efforts to free Mr. Vanunu.

"Most of the Israeli left sees Israel's nuclear ability as a replacement for secure borders, so they don't share the American left's enthusiasm for nuclear disarmament," said Dr. Lerner.