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18 March 2018 21:32 (South Africa)

Jonathan Pollard, 28 years later: A still awkward debate among Americans and Israelis

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have now reached a state of near collapse, amidst mutual accusations of deal-breaking behaviour. Meanwhile, the US seems caught awkwardly in having backed out of the release from a US prison of a convicted spy for Israel, Jonathan Pollard. What’s going on here? J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

Twenty-eight years ago, US Naval Intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage for selling American secrets to the Israeli government. In recent days, as his possible parole date in 2015 has come closer, rumours grew that Pollard’s release (presumably by way of a presidential pardon) was to have been the sweetener for the Israelis in a deal brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry that was in the works between the Israelis, the Palestinians – and the Americans.

Over the years, various scholars, politicians and some senior emeritus government figures have argued that Pollard’s release from prison was long overdue. Others, however, have argued that even the idea of waving Pollard as bait to the Israelis was a sign of desperation by the Obama administration, in its efforts to gain some traction with the Israelis in those forever-fraught, on-again/off-again Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Some have argued, however, that involving a convicted American prisoner like Pollard as lure in these negotiations represented a particularly troubling gambit.

Yet others have worried, rather more darkly, that Pollard’s individual act somehow was positioned to underscore the presumption of dual loyalties (and, as such, some clearly dubious intents) on the part of American Jews more generally, especially when Israel was concerned. Or, even worse, was there something about Pollard’s individual circumstances that pushed American Jews to hear, yet again, sotto voce whispers about the dubiousness of their national patriotism and loyalty to the US – reminiscent of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus’ appalling treatment by France a little over a century ago? Or perhaps it was even a kind of reach back to the actions, convictions and then the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the atomic secrets spies who carried out their activities on behalf of the Soviet Union during World War II’s Manhattan Project.

Back in the middle of the Cold War, Pollard had been caught, charged and convicted of passing suitcases of American classified information to Israel while he was working as a civilian intelligence analyst. Pleading guilty, Pollard received a life sentence in 1987 and, because his crime had taken place before 1 November 1987, he only became eligible for parole after 30 years’ time served - provided he maintained a clean record in prison. This now makes him eligible for parole on 21 November 2015.

After years in prison, Pollard received Israeli citizenship, but that nation had declined to admit until three years later that they had, in fact, purchased classified information from him. Over the years, various Israeli activist groups, some (but by no means all) Jewish-American groups, and high-profile Israeli politicians like Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, have offered strong support for the convicted spy. Netanyahu, in fact, had even visited Pollard in prison in 2002 - although at a time when he was not in Israeli public office.

Pollard has become the only person in American history to have received a life sentence for spying on behalf of an ally - as well as the only American citizen actually convicted of such a crime who has been sentenced to serve more than a decade in prison. Current US law says that punishment for such crimes is now set at a maximum limit of ten years, save for when it might “result in the death of an agent of the United States” or if such disclosures concern “nuclear weaponry […] war plans; communications intelligence or cryptographic information.” (Another convicted spy, Aldrich Ames, meanwhile, continues to serve his time in the big house. However, the intelligence community’s assessment has been that Ames’ actions - by providing the Soviet Union with quantities of extremely sensitive information - had led to the deaths of at least ten US agents working in the Soviet Union.)

Over the years, various people, such as activist rabbi Avi Weiss, have gone to bat publicly and energetically for Pollard’s release. Weiss has said Pollard has “expressed regret” to him for his actions and Pollard’s ex-wife has been leading a campaign for his release as well.

Meanwhile, the CIA’s own 1987 “damage assessment” of Pollard’s disclosures to the Israelis (a report that was declassified in late 2012) noted Pollard’s Israeli handlers had never asked him to gather information on American military activities. Instead, in using Pollard’s access, the Israelis had apparently been much more interested in American intelligence data on a number of Arab states, Pakistan and the then-Soviet Union. Not altogether surprisingly, the particular focus of their attention had been those nations’ respective weapons systems.

Just a week ago, it seemed likely the US was now dangling the possibility of an early release for Pollard – at least a year before he would have been eligible for parole – as a sweetener to help induce the Israelis to do their share to keep the so-far-ill-fated peace negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis to continue to meet. By prior agreement, these negotiations were supposed to have led to more concrete results by the end of this current month. Some in the Obama administration had clearly thought Pollard’s release would help keep the Israelis in the game.

As a result, Obama administration ruminations about Pollard seem to have been deliberately leaked – presumably as a way of putting pressure on the Israelis to hold hands again with their erstwhile negotiating partners. And this, in turn, had led to widespread newspaper reports of Pollard’s possible release from prison – and thus speculations that such a move might well help keep the talks alive even as they seemed headed for life support.

Now, however, these negotiations appear to be dramatically stalled – or worse. Although not entirely ended, American Secretary of State Kerry – chief promoter of these talks with nearly a dozen visits to the region to help push them along – is taking heat because of their apparent imminent collapse. This comes amidst all the usual charges and counter-charges, recriminations and bilateral bluster.

Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu threatened that Israel would take undefined “unilateral steps” in response to the Palestinians’ decision to enter various international conventions as an effectively sovereign nation, signing documents to seek membership in some fifteen international treaties and conventions. This was a move Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas had previously promised not to carry out during the nine-month period for the talks that John Kerry had initiated last summer. Netanyahu, in response, had said a Palestinian state would come to be “only through direct negotiations, not through empty statements and not by unilateral moves.”

But in response to Netanyahu’s challenge, the Palestinians’ leadership said they were taking this step as a response to the Israelis’ failure to release a group of long-serving Palestinian prisoners by the end of March – and that this failure by Israel to meet their previously offered commitment had poisoned the well. Still, representatives from the Palestinian and Israeli sides were scheduled to meet yet again under the aegis of US special envoy Martin Indyk.

Where that leaves the Israelis, Palestinians and John Kerry is now a real question, going forward. Speaking on CNN on Sunday, Council on Foreign Relations (a major US think-tank) President Richard Haas argued that the continuation or collapse of these Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is no longer really a major global question. Rather, it has now become just a regional sideshow - and much less crucial than the dire situation in Syria or the West’s relationship with Iran over its presumed nuclear capabilities and plans. At least for the present, the real loser in all this seems to be Secretary of State Kerry, the man who had invested so much energy and his prestige in the success of the negotiations – even as so many other more crucial international problems and dilemmas demand his – and, more broadly, the Obama administration’s – close attention.

And so where is Jonathan Pollard in all this? Well, first of all, he is still in prison, and still the subject of a debate over whether his continued life there should even have been part of the discussion in the first place. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and former CIA Director James Woolsey, for example, now support Pollard’s release. While a number of prominent columnists and commentators have come out either in favour of his release because of the severity of his sentence, or for his continued detention and absence from any deal in the Middle East because of its trivialising impact on American power; major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post have both come down opposed to his release.

The New York Times had editorialised, “The emergence of the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as a bargaining chip in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is a lamentable sign of America’s desperation to keep both sides talking. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians can be achieved only if they want it for themselves, something that is very much in doubt right now. An Obama administration proposal to free Mr. Pollard, an American intelligence analyst serving a life sentence after spying for Israel, as a political gesture toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is a bad idea and would do nothing to advance progress on the core issues of a peace deal.”

But what about the American Jewish community’s feelings about Pollard – especially when his release seemed imminent?  As the New York Times had reported a few days earlier, “Even now, nearly three decades later, Mr. Pollard’s case bedevils American Jews. While more and more of them believe the time to release him is long past — he spied for an ally, not an enemy, they say, and has expressed remorse — they are deeply divided over whether he should be used as a chit in a diplomatic transaction. For an older generation, the potential release of this Cold War-era spy has roused another unwelcome ghost from the past: the suggestion that American Jews, like Mr. Pollard, inevitably hold divided loyalties and cannot be trusted in sensitive posts.”

It went on to add, “If Mr. Pollard, once freed, is given a hero’s welcome in Israel — a likely outcome, given the Israeli government’s long campaign on his behalf — there is worry that it will cause a backlash in the United States, where Mr. Pollard is still viewed by many, especially in the national security establishment, as a traitor who sold his country’s secrets for cash. ‘Pollard represents the ultimate betrayal,’ said Aaron David Miller, a long-time Middle East peace negotiator who is one of a circle of American Jewish diplomats who came of age at the time of Mr. Pollard’s arrest. ‘He is also a poster child for one of the darker tropes in American society: that Jews simply cannot have a single loyalty.’ ”

Nevertheless, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a prominent secular, but Jewish-oriented body, has argued, “If everything the secretary of state has achieved hangs on the thread of exchanging Jonathan Pollard for Palestinian murderers of women and children, then there wasn’t much there to begin with.”

Meanwhile, Dennis Ross, a former senior advisor on the Middle East for both Presidents Clinton and Obama, has argued that Pollard’s arrest helped perpetuate a stereotype Jews could not be trusted to work on issues related to Israel. However, Ross has recently added that if averting a collapse in the negotiations hinged on Pollard’s release, then that would be the right course to do. (Ross is no amateur in the Middle East quagmire. Over the years he has managed to build quite personal ties with many in the region. His daughter’s bat mitzvah ceremony drew both the Jordanian and the Israeli ambassadors in Washington – besides this writer’s daughter.)

Meanwhile, arguing that while the canard of dual loyalty for Jews has faded, Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, a leftist-progressive Jewish magazine, has argued, “This is someone [Pollard] whose politics I detest, and whose role in the public sphere will be to support reactionary Israeli policy. Nevertheless, his continued imprisonment is unconscionable.” But historian and American-born Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren has argued, “When Israeli leaders do everything they can to bring this guy home, it’s because he touches a nerve. He is the embodiment of a national narrative of the Jew who sacrificed himself for his people.”

Back in 1987, when Pollard had entered prison, in speaking about this charge of dual or divided loyalties, University of California historian David Biale had written in Tikkun, “The scenario is not new: A Jew in a high place is convicted of espionage for a foreign country and the fact that he is a Jew becomes central to the case. From Dreyfus to the Rosenbergs, the theme of the Jewish spy, more loyal to a foreign power (any foreign power) has been a staple of the anti-Semitic diet. But now a new wrinkle appears in this hoary paradigm: The allegiance of the Jewish spy is not to any foreign country but to Israel. What could be more satisfying to the xenophobia of the anti-Semites than to discover that the Jew, whose innate disloyalty was always obvious, had finally revealed his true colors by spying for the Jewish state.”

But Biale concluded there was more to Pollard’s tale than the usual mutterings from xenophobic conspiracy zanies, arguing, “Until and unless we are provided with much more persuasive evidence, we can only assume that another agenda lies behind Pollard's extraordinarily harsh and thoroughly unexpected sentence. That agenda may well have something to do with the Iranian arms scandal…. For the real and imagined crimes of Israel, Jonathan Pollard may well have been seen as a likely sacrificial scapegoat, a way of sending a message to Israel and perhaps to the American Jews not to step out of place again.”

Biale concluded, “If this is the message, then instead of cowering in fear of dual loyalty accusations, Jews need to hurl the accusations back on the doorstep from which they came. As misguided and mistaken as Israel's actions in the Iranian-Contra disaster may have been, the Reagan administration bears the full measure of responsibility for its illegal behaviour. And Jews will not be silenced by the Pollard affair in their opposition to this regime, which has sown terror abroad and hunger and homelessness at home.”

One way or another, in one format or configuration or another, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will eventually lurch forward again. But until both parties finally can see their mutual interest in finding way forward out of their current unhappy embrace, they seem destined to stay locked in this position for the foreseeable future. And, while Jonathan Pollard’s early release is now apparently off the table as the deal sweetener for the Israelis, next year Pollard will likely be out of prison anyway. If he is released, and if he then goes to Israel, and if he gets the hero’s welcome as a prodigal son returned that would seem likely, he might yet cast an awkward shadow over American-Israeli relations – and perhaps bring about some more difficult conversations in America as well. DM

Read more:

  • Israel Warns Palestinians but Leaves Way Open for Talks in the New York Times
  • New Palestinian recognition bid largely symbolic in the AP
  • Bad Move on Jonathan Pollard in the New York Times
  • Talk of Freeing a Spy for Israel Stirs Old Unease for U.S. Jews in the New York Times
  • J'Accuse: American Jews and L'Affaire Pollard by David Biale in Tikkun
  • Free Jonathan Pollard, a column by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post
  • Offering Jonathan Pollard’s release in Mideast peace talks is premature in the Washington Post
  • Don’t let Jonathan Pollard go now, a column by Jennifer Rubin
  • The Disturbing Pollard Debate by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary
  • Possible release of Israeli spy Pollard spurs uproar in USA Today
  • U.S. to Reassess Status of Talks on Middle East in the New York Times
  • Free a Spy to Help Save the Mideast Talks? A letter by Seymour Reich in the New York Times
  • AP Interview: Pollard's ex-wife urges his release in the AP

Photo: A file picture dated 19 March 2013 shows Israeli protesters holding placards reading: 'Free Pollard' and portraits of Jonathan Pollard as some 1,000 people demonstrate outside the President's residence calling for the release of the Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard, a Jewish American who was jailed for life in 1987 on charges of spying on the United States, in Jerusalem, Israel. EPA/ABIR SULTAN

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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