Justice Tempered by Mercy

Hillel Halkin - The New York Sun - December 7, 2004

The Egyptian release of Azzam Azzam after eight years of imprisonment is a welcome development. Azzam, a member of Israel's Druze community, was innocent of the espionage charges pressed against him. Israel has been seeking to free him since the day of his arrest, and the recent warming of Israeli-Egyptian relations has finally enabled these efforts to succeed. The outcome will help Prime Minister Sharon politically, particularly in the Druze community, which has felt neglected by Israel's governments despite being the only sector of the country's Arab community to serve in the army and fully accept the existence of a Jewish state.

On the face of it, Azzam's swap for six Egyptians held in Israel for security offenses seems unrelated to the rumors that circulated a while ago of a more intricate exchange - a three-way deal that would have had Israel releasing Marwan Barghouti, the popular Palestinian leader of the Tanzim, the West Bank organization that committed terrorist murders for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and America freeing Jonathan Pollard.

In fact, the indications are that the current, post-Arafat Palestinian leadership is happy with Barghouti's being where he is and is in no hurry for him to get out from behind bars, especially now that he has declared himself a candidate in next month's election for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. As the one person capable of drawing a large body of votes away from the official PLO candidate, Mahmoud Abbas or "Abu-Mazen," he's better off in a place where he can't campaign.

Even after the January elections, the Palestinian Authority will have little incentive to see Barghouti get out of jail. As a grassroots activist who came up through the ranks of West Bank political life and anti-Israel violence, he will remain a threat to Arafat sidekicks like Abbas who were imposed on the Palestinian people from above when the PLO leadership-in-exile was flown into the Occupied Territories on the heels of the Oslo Agreement. This would seem to make him a useless card for Israel to play, let alone with which to try to achieve the release of Pollard. Indeed, one might jokingly speculate that Israel would do better to threaten to release Barghouti unless Pollard is let go - an ultimatum that might send the Palestinian Authority running to Washington with the plea to give into it.

Joking aside, however, Azzam's release should be the occasion of a new attempt on Israel's part to also free Pollard, who has now been imprisoned for twice the amount of time that Azzam was. [J4JP: Twenty years to Azzam Azzam's eight - two and a half times as long!]

It can be objected, of course, that the two cases have nothing to do with each other. Azzam was innocent of espionage; Pollard was guilty. What does the release of the one man have to do with the other?

This is in fact true - but in an opposite sense to that intended by such a question. It is precisely Pollard's guilt that imposes on Israel a far greater moral obligation to obtain his release than it had in the case of Azzam. Although Azzam's arrest, which took place while he was working for an Israeli-owned textile firm in Cairo, had to do with his being an Israeli - Egyptian intelligence was eager at the time to demonstrate its prowess by catching an Israeli "spy" - it had nothing to do with the Israeli government. This government's responsibility to free him was the same as it would have been to free any Israeli unjustly imprisoned in a foreign country, whether for espionage, narcotics, or any other charge. Such a responsibility is great but it is not supreme; if national interests decree otherwise, it need not be pursued at any cost.

But Pollard was asked to spy by Israel. He was sent by it to perform a dangerous job in the same way that a soldier is sent into battle. It is an axiom of the espionage business that when a country's agent is caught, it behaves toward him as it would behave toward a soldier in its army who has been taken prisoner-of-war. It spares no effort, passes up no opportunity, to obtain his freedom. The question of whether it was wise to ask him to spy is of no more relevance than the question of whether it was wise to send a soldier into battle.

Has Israel made that supreme effort with Mr. Pollard? It did once almost. This happened at the temporarily successful American-Israeli-Palestinian Wye Summit in 1998, when Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister, did everything he could do to persuade President Clinton to let Pollard go and made the release of Palestinian prisoners - a sine qua non from the Palestinian point of view - contingent on such an American step. Mr. Clinton nearly agreed and then changed his mind when the director of central intelligence, George Tenet, threatened to resign if he went through with it, and Mr. Netanyahu, in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the president, blinked first and backed down.

Mr. Netanyahu might or might not have managed to free Pollard at Wye if he hadn't lost his nerve at the last minute, but at least he gave it a real try; this is more than can be said for either his predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, or his successor, Ehud Barak, neither of whom tried to take advantage of similar situations, in which America badly wanted Israeli concessions, to include Pollard in the deal.

The next time such a situation comes around again, it is to be hoped that Mr. Sharon will do better. His persistence with Azzam as with Elchanan Tannenbaum, freed by the Hezbollah in Lebanon a year ago, shows that he cares about such cases. The case of Pollard dwarfs both these men's.

Mr. Halkin is a contributing editor of the New York Sun.