Push for Pollard: Supporters see release on horizon; others unsure
Adam Kredo - The Washington Jewish Week - December 29, 2010
Enough is enough, says Rabbi Pesach Lerner. It's time for Jonathan Pollard to be freed from prison.
People are recognizing that Pollard, a Naval intelligence officer convicted of spying for Israel, got a raw deal when he was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison, said Lerner, vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella organization for Orthodox synagogues.
Three consecutive presidents have disregarded pleas to grant Pollard clemency on the grounds that his sentence was excessively harsh. But a recent spate of high-profile appeals on the spy's behalf is leading some to speculate that his release could be on the horizon.
"I'm cautiously optimistic" that President Barack Obama could free Pollard, who is said to be seriously ill, Lerner said in an interview Monday.
In the past several weeks, a who's who of lawmakers and government heavyweights have argued that Pollard's crime of passing classified information to Israel doesn't warrant a lifetime in jail. They point out that others convicted of similar crimes have had much shorter sentences.
In a letter to Obama last week, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who served under President George W. Bush, stated that Pollard's espionage wasn't motivated by animus to the U.S. Rather, he smuggled the secret documents to aid a non-hostile ally.
Others, such as Lawrence Korb, assistant defense secretary for the Reagan administration, have made a similar case, and a group of 39 members of Congress also prodded Obama on Pollard's behalf late last month.
Efforts seemed to come to a head last week when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "decided to accede" to pressure from the pro-Pollard camp by agreeing to lobby Obama personally for clemency, according to a statement from his office.
Some speculate that with the peace process stagnating, Obama could free Pollard in an effort to entice Israelis back to the bargaining table.
"I think it will be a cold calculation by the administration of whether it furthers their interests" in the Middle East, said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and treasurer of the Washington PAC, a pro-Israel political action committee.
Freeing Pollard, Amitay speculated, could lead Netanyahu to feel that he "would owe [the administration] something" in return.
Amitay, too, believes that Pollard has served long enough. "Unless someone in the government is willing to go on the record and state that releasing [Pollard] could be detrimental to the U.S.'s national security, then there's no reason after 25 years to keep him incarcerated," he said.
While noise surrounding the Pollard affair tends to ebb and flow, the recent push for his freedom is unusual, said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The RAC has called for Pollard's release.
"He's been there for a long time, there's a lot of attention on the Middle East right now and it just jelled into the kind of momentum we're seeing," he explained. "It's hard to manufacture that."
But other prominent Jews with knowledge of the case aren't optimistic.
"The problem is no president has the guts to do it," said attorney Alan Dershowitz, who lobbied heavily for Pollard's release during the Clinton administration.
Citing a press briefing last week in which White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said that he had no knowledge that Obama was mulling over clemency for Pollard, Dershowitz lamented that he doesn't "think there's cause for great optimism."
Linking Pollard to the peace process, others maintain, is dangerous, as Pollard's case should be seen as a humanitarian one.
"You can't argue for a connection between the two," said Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. "Pollard has nothing to do with" the peace process, and should be released as a "humanitarian gesture."
Lerner, too, believes that the spy's "freedom should not be contingent on political deals - that is not how we define justice and fair play."
Rabbi Herzl Kranz of the Orthodox Silver Spring Jewish Center blames Israel for the impasse.
"They abandoned him," said Kranz, a longtime pro-Pollard advocate who said his repeated pleas to the Embassy of Israel on the spy's behalf have gone unheeded.
For many American Jews, Pollard's crimes are serious and did great damage to the Jewish community's reputation.
"This was the worst nightmare in terms of dual loyalty," said one Jewish organizational official who, due to the sensitivity of the issue, agreed to speak only on background.
"There are instances in relationships between two governments where the interests of maintaining a good relationship trumps humanitarian consideration, and this is one of those cases," the source said. "If he needs to be sacrificed, he should be sacrificed."
Even some of those close to the matter on Capitol Hill are put off by Pollard's unrelenting supporters.
"It makes Jews look terrible," said a Democratic House staffer whose boss publicly favors freeing Pollard. "Why are they so passionate about having justice for somebody who was a spy?"
Added a Republican Senate aide: "They try to frame this as an issue of persecution, anti-Semitism and unfair treatment because he was working for Israel and is a Jew, but it's important to recognize that a spy is a spy."
Although presidential clemency appears to be the most expedient route to freedom for Pollard, some question why he has refused to apply for a parole hearing.
"It's awkward for Pollard's supporters to explain why he hasn't applied for parole," said one Jewish legal observer who has long followed the case. "It certainly is puzzling."
Pollard's legal counselors, however, maintain that "applying for parole is not an option" because the Justice Department has not permitted them to review critical documents submitted to the court during his sentencing.
"Without access to that file," said his attorneys, Eliot Lauer and Jacques Semmelman, in a statement, "persons opposed to parole know that they have free rein to say absolutely anything about Mr. Pollard without any risk that they will be contradicted by the documents."
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