Quid Pro Quo

Yosef Goell - The Jerusalem Post - October 21, 2002

In the countdown to the American attack on Iraq, Israel's premier now has the right to insist that the US president release Jonathan Pollard.

Over the past few years I, like many other journalists, have been bombarded by incessant e-mail messages from Esther Pollard and the Jonathan Pollard pressure group to add my voice to those demanding that a succession of US presidents pardon and free Jonathan.

So far I have not done so; certainly not because of any animus toward the American Jew who has spent the last 17 years in a maximum-security jail for spying for Israel, but out of the cold-hearted calculation that pressing too hard for Pollard's release could cost Israel dearly in political and security terms.

That same reasoning led me, 17 years ago, to oppose Israel's succumbing to the demands of Ahmed Jibril's band of Palestinian terrorists for the release of 1,100 of their number held by Israel, many of them "with blood on their hands," in exchange for three Israeli prisoners of war from the 1982 war in Lebanon. I am all the more opposed to such tradeoffs today, knowing that many of those released murderers have since been responsible for killing many other Israelis.

Perhaps this hindsight is what motivated a succession of prime ministers, from Yitzhak Shamir through Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and now Ariel Sharon in their contacts with a succession of American presidents: to bring up the question of Pollard's release but never to press too hard for it.

It was stupid of Israel to plant a spy in the heart of the most sensitive intelligence-gathering agency of its major -- and possibly only -- ally, the US. Specifically, it was stupid and irresponsible of Israel's three top leaders at that time -- prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, foreign minister Shimon Peres, who rotated between the two posts, and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin -- to authorize their underlings to plant Pollard as a spy in Washington.

Did those three not think Pollard would be apprehended sooner or later? Did they never contemplate what it would mean for Israel's relations with the US?

In the event, Israel got off relatively easily. Our three top leaders wriggled out of their responsibility; none of them resigned or accepted personal responsibility for that near-calamitous failure. Pollard was the only one who paid the price -- which is the way it usually is in the murky arena of espionage.

The US was certainly within its rights to try and sentence Pollard. One can even understand the top American defense leadership deciding to send a warning, via Pollard's prolonged incarceration, to an Israel overly confident in its relationship with the US.

The irresponsibility of the Israeli leadership was matched only by the vindictiveness of the Americans, beginning with then secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger, who insisted on punishing Pollard more ferociously than subsequently apprehended American spies for the Soviet Union, who caused the US infinitely greater damage.

Not even the most pro-Israeli American presidents such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been willing to risk their political capital to brave the opposition of the vengeful heads of their defense and intelligence establishments.

I BELIEVE, however, that the time has now come for an Israeli prime minister to insist forcefully to a US president that Pollard be released. In preparation for America's attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, President Bush and his defense heads are demanding that Israel not retaliate in force to any unprovoked Iraqi missile attack on its civilian population.

I believe that it is in Israel's interest to go along with that American demand, just as Shamir was correct in accepting a similar demand in the 1991 Gulf War.

It is essential, however, that we publicly emphasize the enormity of the American demand, even as we acquiesce in it. No American president would dare demand that his military keep their powder dry if it were American civilians threatened with attack.

The Americans are making all sorts of promises about protecting us against an Iraqi missile attack. Given their sorry record in failing to make a serious try to foil the Western Iraq launch sites in 1991, there is room for some measure of skepticism today.

But in this threatening new situation an Israeli leader should at least demand that Bush do something to reassure Israeli public opinion, for example, by a gesture like freeing Pollard.

The irony of the Iraqi situation in this connection should not be lost. What Pollard was actually doing was obtaining critical satellite and electronic intelligence on Iraq and its destructive capabilities against Israel, intelligence the Americans refused to share with us. That was at a time when Washington was cozying up to Saddam Hussein, and it lasted well up to his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

We shouldn't rub it in -- but the US today should admit that, on Saddam, Israel was right and the US wrong.

[The writer is a retired lecturer in political science and a veteran journalist.)

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