PM admits fearing failure in call for Pollard's release

Gil Hoffman - The Jerusalem Post - December 20, 2010

Netanyahu meets with Esther Pollard, says he will decide whether to accept wife's plea to formally call on Obama to release Jonathan.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu promised Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard's wife Esther in an emotional meeting at the Knesset on Monday that he would decide by Tuesday evening whether to accept her husband's request that he issue a formal, public call to US President Barack Obama to commute his life sentence to time served.

Netanyahu told a delegation of activists for Pollard led by Esther and former US deputy secretary of defense Lawrence Korb that he had quietly raised the Israeli agent's fate six times in his meetings with Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an effort to secure his release. Netanyahu questioned whether a public call might do more harm than good.

"There is a risk that I might do everything that you suggest and that it simply won't work," Netanyahu told the group candidly.

A tearful Esther Pollard responded by detailing her husband's poor health and telling Netanyahu: "This might be my last chance to beg you to change your tactics. Whatever you have done until now did not bear fruit. Jonathan is prepared to take whatever risk there may be. There is a greater risk in doing nothing."

Netanyahu's associates denied that he was afraid of harming himself politically by issuing a call for Pollard's release that would be rejected. They said he genuinely wanted to bring Pollard home to Israel, and he was unsure whether the approach that the agent requested in a letter Esther delivered to him was the ideal strategy when appealing to Obama.

Sources close to Netanyahu said he did not believe it was the role of a prime minister to issue public calls or write letters when he can speak personally to the president of the United States. They said that for the same reason, he chose to cancel his participation at a pro-Pollard rally at the Knesset on Monday and instead meet Esther Pollard and Korb privately in his office.

In the meeting with Netanyahu and earlier at the rally, Korb spelled out what he believed was the best way for the prime minister to persuade Obama to commute the life sentence Pollard has been serving for more than 25 years. He read aloud a draft of what Netanyahu should say in a public request for Pollard's release.

"I admit it was wrong for Israel to recruit Pollard to spy on his country and for Israel to then deny that he was its agent," Netanyahu should say according to Korb. "Since the Pollard incident, Israel has complied with its commitment to no longer field agents in the US. We feel the need to speak publicly at this time, because according to US laws, Pollard's punishment does not fit the crime he committed. He has expressed remorse and had good behavior in prison. We publicly request that Pollard's sentence be commuted to time served."

Esther Pollard stressed at the rally that the holiday season in the US was traditionally a time in which the president makes decisions on pardons and commuting sentences. Korb added that "Americans are a forgiving people" and that Obama was "a very thoughtful man."

Officials working for Pollard's release revealed that when his lawyers asked former US president George W. Bush to pardon Pollard, they were told in a meeting with the White House legal team that a formal Israeli request could be helpful, but the request never came and Bush left office without pardoning Pollard.

Korb advised Netanyahu not to try to secure Pollard's release in return for a diplomatic move, as he tried to do at the Wye Plantation summit in 1998 and when he recently offered to extend a construction moratorium in the West Bank in return for Pollard's release.

The pro-Pollard rally, which was organized by MKs Uri Ariel (National Union) and Ronit Tirosh (Kadima) featured addresses by Nobel Prize winner Israel Aumann and former Supreme Court Justice Zvi Tal. Esther Pollard told the audience about her husband's ailing health and that the last time he called her, he was too sick to talk to her.

"This was the first time in 26 years that Jonathan didn't have the strength to talk to me on the phone," she cried. "That's how sick he is. Mr. Netanyahu, now is the time to call for Jonathan's release - for every reason, because if you don't do it now, I am not sure whether there will be another opportunity."

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