Jerusalem Report Commentary: Free Pollard Now
There has been a convergence of events preparing hearts and minds, and reinforcing the case for Jonathan Pollard's release
Nachman Shai - The Jerusalem Report Magazine, cover date: January 27, 2014
Getting 106 of the 120 Knesset Members, including 18 cabinet ministers, to sign a joint letter was unprecedented. That it was addressed to US President Barack Obama and called for convicted spy Jonathan Pol lard's release was doubly remarkable. Indeed, it is astonishing that this controversial figure, implicated in a shady affair criticized across the board, has become part of the national consensus.
Even Arab Knesset Members expressed their support. One signed the letter and others announced, without appending their signatures, that they would back the plea for Pollard's release. True, they added a caveat: that the Pollard case should not be linked in any way to the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails. But that is my view, too.
The truth is simple. There has been a convergence of events preparing hearts and minds, and reinforcing the case for Pollard's release. The recent reports of American spying in Israel seemed to imply a double standard and provoked widespread anger. This is not something we can accept with equanimity. Especially after Israel - in the wake of the Pollard affair - promised not to spy on the US nearly 30 years ago.
At the time of Pollard's arrest in the mid-1980s, I served in the defense minister's bureau, and I remember the rigidly uncompromising stance the Americans took toward Israel and the main protagonists in the affair. Now that they are apparently eavesdropping on senior Israeli politicians - and maybe more - there is a heightened sense of imbalance at the way Pollard has been treated.
Secondly, the release of Palestinian prisoners by Israel has brought the Pollard case into sharp focus. And rightly so. The US pressed Israel to choose between a building freeze in the West Bank or a sizeable prisoner release as a goodwill gesture towards the Palestinians. Israel chose to free 104 prisoners. I would have preferred the other option. But once the decision was taken, the Americans got right behind it, insisting that Israel adhere scrupulously to the precise numbers and dates for release.
The Palestinians released are convicted murderers who should have served out their full sentences. Israelis were somewhat bewildered why the Americans considered it reasonable to ask Israel to release convicted prisoners, circumventing the judiciary and getting President Shimon Peres to pardon them, while they insisted that Pollard's sentence was final and immutable.
In some ways the Palestinian prisoner and the Pollard issues are connected and in others not. For example, I think we should keep our commitment to free Palestinian prisoners without demanding Pollard's release in return. I know that mine is something of a lone voice and that many others think differently. Perhaps releasing Pollard would sweeten the bitter pill. In any event, Israel has already carried out the third of four scheduled prisoner releases and Pollard is still behind bars.
This brings me to my main point. Jonathan Pollard should be released simply because he has already spent 28 years in prison. True, he was jailed for the very serious offense of espionage, for which he got the punishment he deserved. But 28 years are more than enough. The non-profit organization campaigning for Pollard's release provides countless examples of prisoners convicted of similar crimes, who served much shorter terms. Some were released without any jail time and others served up to seven years. I have no idea what the reason for the American judiciary's selective sentencing policy was - but the facts speak for themselves.
Perhaps we don't know the full story and the crimes committed by Pollard were more serious than those committed by all the other convicted spies. I have my doubts. But even if that is the case, there is no reasonable explanation for such a long prison term, without any chance of it being commuted and without the prisoner being allowed any furlough, not even to attend his parents' funerals or sit shiva for them. There is a limit to heartlessness; a little humane compassion would not have gone amiss. Just a little.
The campaign for Pollard's release has gathered steam over the past few years. The first decade and even the second of his imprisonment were largely accepted as fair. The public campaigns for his release in Israel and the US were marginal. Treason is a serious affair by any yardstick. Israel has itself taken a tough line against similar offenses.
BUT THE passage of time has its own special weight. It is no accident that we say that freed convicts have "paid their debt to society." The measures of justice and mercy are closely related to the time a man spends in prison. And clearly, after the passage of almost 30 years, the pleas for release grow louder and more insistent. It is obvious to everyone that by now all the national, legal, security, diplomatic and personal claims against what a freed Pollard might do, whatever they may have been, are no longer valid. All that remains is the hard and largely incomprehensible fact of his continued incarceration.
The voices raised against it now include those of senior officials who served in various US administrations over the past four decades as well as those of past and present Congressmen. I have in my possession letters from secretary of state George Shultz
and assistant defense secretary Lawrence Korb, in office at the time of Pollard's arrest and trial; Henry Kissinger, secretary of state 1973-1977; James Woolsey, CIA director 1993-1995; Bernard Nussbaum, White House counsel 1993-1994; Michael Mukasey, attorney general 2007-2009; and former senators Dennis DeConcini and Alan Simpson appealing to Obama for Pol lard's release. More than 40 members of the House of Representatives have also signed a petition to the president along these lines. Overcoming their earlier embarrassment and inhibitions, prominent American Jewish organizations, led by the Anti Defamation League, are also protesting.
Any estimation of the chances for Pol lard's release must take into account opposition from various quarters in the administration and segments of US public opinion. Moreover, as US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro recently explained to us, in America early release of prisoners serving life terms is not routine or self-understood. To Israelis, on the other hand, it seems almost trivial. In our system there have been so many precedents. All the prisoner exchanges between Israel and neighboring terrorist organizations were based on the release of long-term serving prisoners from Israeli jails in return for POWs or the bodies of POWs. We have gotten used to the idea that the price is worth paying - even if it entails a distortion of the sentences handed down by the courts.
But America is not Israel and it seems that the kind of pardon we are asking for is not common in America. Recently, as the campaign to release Pollard gained a new urgency, there were rumors that US Secretary of State John Kerry - who is making a supreme effort to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace - had agreed to consider an Israeli request to release Pollard as a condition for Israel continuing its release of Palestinian prisoners. But it was only wishful thinking. The 3rd phase of the prisoner release went ahead in late December without Pollard.
In the coming weeks, my colleague Ayelet Shaked of Bayit Yehudi and I, who head the bipartisan Knesset lobby for Pollard's release, together with activists from the Free Pollard NPO, intend to ratchet up the pressure and galvanize as much support as possible in Israel and the US. We feel that a request to release Pollard on humanitarian grounds, something everyone can relate to, will have the best chance of success. Current events and the pleas of leading Israeli and American public figures will hopefully generate a useful tailwind. Ultimately, however, the decision rests with Obama; he, and only he, will decide whether the time has come to allow Pollard to live out the rest of his life as a free man.
Dr. Nachman Shai of the Labor Party is co-chair with Bayit Yehudi's Ayelet Shaked of the Knesset lobby for Jonathan Pollard's release.
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