Who Betrayed Jonathan Pollard at Wye?

November 6, 1998 - by Ya'acov Kornreich - Yated Ne'eman

Controversy still swirls over what actually transpired at the end of the Wye Plantation talks, when the entire peace agreement almost foundered over whether or not the Clinton Administration would agree to release Jonathan J.Pollard.

Pollard is the American Jew and confessed Israeli spy and former US Navy intelligence expert who has spent 13 years in federal prisons for turning huge amounts of classified American documents to Israel. Debate has long raged over whether Pollard is a modern Jewish hero who took great personal risks to protect the State of Israel, or just a misguided individual who betrayed his country's trust.

The real mysteries of his saga, however, have always gone somewhat deeper: Why did Israeli intelligence agents take such great risks with the country's relationship with the US by using Pollard as a spy, and why has the upper echelon of security and intelligence establishment within the US government been so obsessed with punishing Pollard and keeping him imprisoned under unusually harsh conditions far longer than any other spy against this country. Even after 13 years, the answers to those two key questions have yet to be fully told. Now we must add two more questions to the list: two weeks ago, at the very end of the Wye Plantation talks, did President Clinton actually go back on a promise to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to free Pollard, and why was the Pollard issue important enough to come so close to destroying the peace agreement.

The "official" White House version of events, as reported by most mainstream news media at the time, was that Pollard's release was a "last-minute demand" make upon Clinton so that Netanyahu could "return home as a hero" with Pollard aboard his airplane. The State Department spokesman and White House leaks to the press have gone out of their way to specifically declare that "Any suggestion by any quarter that the president made a commitment to release Jonathan Pollard is inaccurate and false." In the end, at the accord signing ceremony at the White House, President Clinton himself said that he had promised only to "review this matter [of Pollard's release] seriously," and carefully avoiding any commitment about the outcome of that review.

But that version of events does not fully explain the facts, and leaves a number of unanswered questions: If Pollard's release was so important to Netanyahu, why did he wait to raise it as a last minute afterthought, after all of the other issues on the negotiating table were settled? In fact, since it is an issue that is strictly between Israel and the United States, why did Netanyahu raise it at all in the peace talks with the Palestinians. And finally, why did the Israelis view the American refusal to release Pollard as important enough an issue to break a major international peace agreement?

If the White House version of the story is true, a number of columnists, including William Safire of the New York Times, have pointed out that raising the Pollard issue in that way was a serious diplomatic mistake, and means that the State of Israel will probably have to pay a high diplomatic price at some future time in order to achieve his release.

However, a totally different version of the story, which has emerged from Israeli sources, more adequately explains the known sequence of events and particularly why the Israelis came so close to walking away from the whole deal over the Pollard issue at the end.

Arafat's idea

That version of the story was first reported last week in Israel by the Arutz 7 news service, and has since been elaborated upon by Kenneth Timmerman of the Washington Times and other columnists. It claims that Pollard's release by the United States was first suggested as a part of the overall Israeli-Palestinian deal by Yasser Arafat, of all people, in a creative effort to break a crucial impasse in the negotiations over a security issue between Israel and the Palestinians. Once of Israel's key demands was that the Palestinians turn over to Israel for trial and punishment more than 30 wanted Palestinian terrorists whose whereabouts were well known by the PA.

As a compromise, Arafat and Netanyahu had agreed that these terrorists would be tried and imprisoned by and within the PA, with the American CIA guaranteeing that they will indeed remain in custody for the duration of their sentences. The last remaining sticking point was the fact that the most wanted Palestinian terrorists on the Israeli list was one of Arafat's security chiefs, Ghazi Jabali, against whom the Israelis have evidence that he planned and ordered terrorist attacks against Israeli targets and who has knowingly recruite many wanted terrorists into the PA security forces.

Gabali was the one person on the Israeli list whom Arafat was unwilling to imprison, but if Arafat wanted Netanyahu to drop his demand for Jabali's imprisonment, Arafat had to give the Israeli leader something significant in return. As his price for Jabali's freedom, Netanyahu reportedly suggested on the first day of the peace talks that Arafat intervene with Egypt's President Mubarak to gain the release of Azam Azam. Azam is an Israeli citizen whom the Egyptians have been holding on trumped up charges of spying for the past two years. But that trade turned out not to be possible.

The issue was then reportedly put aside as the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators turned to other. Once those security issues were finally resolved, a week later. the talks finally returned to the price for Jabali's continued freedom. It was then, late Thursday night, at the very end of an exhausting twenty hour negotiating session, that Yasser Arafat reportedly suggested that Israel agree to exchange Jabali's freedom for the US government's release of Jonathan Pollard. Netanyahu accepted the proposal, provided that the US would go along. That was how it came about that at 4 AM on the last morning of the peace talks President Clinton reportedly promised to supply a side letter to Israel at the Wye agreement signing ceremony guaranteeing the release of Pollard from federal prison 20 days later.

All versions of this story agree that the issue of Pollard's release was the subject of a conversation between Netanyahu and Clinton at 4 AM that Friday morning. They disagree, however, over what Clinton said, and why the subject arose in the first place. According to the official American version of events, Netanyahu misunderstood what Clinton had actually promised him at that time. "What you had here was a president who likes to say what he thinks his listeners want to hear and a prime minister who heard what he wanted to hear," the American version says. It denies that President Clinton ever actually agreed to free Pollard.

But Israeli sources insist that this is not true, and that the Clinton had made a very specific commitment to free Pollard in exchange for Palestinian terrorist Jabali.

The Israeli version of the story is believable for another reason. If true, it would fit the classic pattern of countries exchanging their captured intelligence agents for one another.

But then, according to Israeli version of events, the CIA and the rest of the American intelligence community rebelled when they heard about President Clinton's agreement to release. They exerted extreme political pressure, through a barrage of leaks to the Washington press corps and a series of violently anti-Pollard statements by influential leaders of Congress, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, Richard Shelby. The fact that the CIA was slated to play a vital role in monitoring the Wye agreement, also gave it added political to demand that President Clinton back down from his promise to Netanyahu to free Pollard.

Clinton reneges on a promise

That was why, as the delegations were preparing to leave Wye to go to a White House treaty signing ceremony, Clinton told Netanyahu that the oral commitment he had given him a few hours earlier was no longer a commitment.

The prime minister, feeling betrayed, responded to Clinton "but I paid for Pollard [by agreeing to the freedom of Jabali]."

To that Clinton reportedly replied, "Did I give you anything in writing?"At that point, Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon and Trade Minister Natan Sharansky reportedly told Netanyahu that if the Americans refused to honor their commitment to free Pollard, the Israeli delegation would do best to return home without an agreement.

The enraged Israelis, feeling betrayed, felt compelled to formally break the press blackout over the negotiations and explain to the world why they were abandoning the peace talks so close to a successful conclusion.

The Israeli press conference upped the political ante, and prompted Clinton to threaten Netanyahu with an ultimatum: If the Israelis were to leave the peace talks at this point, the U.S. would recognize a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood in May.

That was a price that the Israelis were not prepared to pay for Pollard's freedom, and they agreed, in the end, to sign the Wye accords and allow Jabali to remain free without a US commitment to free Jonathan Pollard.

At the signing ceremony, Clinton pledged to "review the [Pollard] matter seriously," but gave "no commitment as to the outcome of this review." Most Israeli sources and friends of Pollard believe that the outcome of that review is already certain, and that Pollard has "little or no" prospect of being freed any time soon. The American president had lied again, gottenaway with it again, and, as a result, Jonathan Pollard is still in jail.

But the incident has raised the issue of Pollard's freedom much higher on the American Jewish community's public agenda. By pure coincidence, as the Wye negotiators were discussing Pollard's fate, the Presidents Conference was circulating a letter to President Clinton asking that Pollard be freed on strictly humanitarian grounds. The Jewish War Veterans was the only major American Jewish group at that time not ready to sign that letter.

Now, Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference's executive vice chairman, has promised that the letter will soon be updated, circulated for signature and submitted again to the White House. Thus, despite the setback at Wye, the cause of freedom and justice for Jonathan Pollard has not been abandoned. It will be raised again soon by the American Jewish community.

That is why, in the end, it seems likely that Jonathan Pollard will eventually be freed on purely humanitarian grounds, rather than as a pawn in diplomatic negotiations between Israel, the Palestinians and the United States.