Can you guess the issue that the Zionist Organization of America, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, American Values President Gary Bauer and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism agree on? It’s the release of Jonathan Pollard.
The man convicted of spying for Israel in 1987 garnered new headlines this week when the effort to free Pollard ramped up as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly joined the ongoing effort here in the United States. After successive Israeli leaders had quietly appealed to both Democratic and Republican presidents, Netanyahu took to the Knesset floor to read his letter to President Obama appealing for Pollard’s release.
And Pollard’s supporters are amazingly consistent in their rhetoric since no one among them argues that he’s innocent.
As Netanyahu put it, “Israel will continue to abide by its commitment that such wrongful actions will never be repeated.” The reason to release Pollard, Democratic lawmakers wrote to Mr. Obama is because of how much time he has been in prison, especially given the lighter sentences handed out to others convicted of espionage. “It is indisputable in our view that the nearly 25 years that Mr. Pollard has served stands as a sufficient time from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence,” the lawmakers stated.
That Americans — both Jews and non-Jews — are seeking justice for Pollard is not surprising. After all, he was spying for a friendly country, he’s served longer than those who have been convicted of spying for our enemies, his sentence was more severe than his plea agreement had recommended and, more dramatically, as a former Defense Department official, Lawrence Korb, detailed recently, Pollard was treated harshly because of Caspar Weinberger. “Based on the knowledge that I have firsthand, I can confidently say that the punishment was so severe because of lack of sympathy for Israel by the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, my boss, Caspar Weinberger,” Korb, the former Pentagon official, wrote to President Obama. With these revelations, Korb joined the long list of those who support Pollard’s clemency.
That Israelis, especially those on the political right, support Pollard’s release is understandable given that Pollard’s spying was meant to support the Jewish state and the belief that a fellow Jew was punished unfairly.
The more interesting question is why Netanyahu and Democratic lawmakers are choosing this moment to argue so publicly for Pollard’s freedom. The answer is as troubling as it is wrongheaded; it is for the sake of negotiating peace with the Palestinians.
Democratic lawmakers were clear about why they want clemency now. “This would be particularly helpful at a time when the Israeli nation faces difficult decisions in its long-standing effort to secure peace with its neighbors,” the letter said.
Netanyahu’s timing is less obvious. He told the Knesset that he was going public because Pollard had asked him to. But it seems reasonable to question whether the prime minister also sees a connection between Pollard and the Palestinians. Maybe he calculates, as some analysts have suggested, that gaining Pollard’s release would shore up support for negotiations with the Palestinians from the right-wing members of his government. Netanyahu could also be betting that a gesture by Obama toward Netanyahu (freeing Pollard) would naturally lead to a gesture by Netanyahu toward Obama (extending a construction moratorium and returning to talks with the Palestinians).
Both of these possibilities are false. The failure of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has nothing to do with Netanyahu’s government and nothing to do with President Obama. The failure lies squarely with the Palestinians themselves who are unwilling to negotiate in good faith. Their unwillingness to negotiate stems from their refusal to accept the natural outcome of those negotiations — a two-state solution. President Obama knows this; Prime Minister Netanyahu knows this, as does every honest analyst of the current stalemate. The trouble is that these truths are only spoken privately (as made clear by the Wikileaks revelations) instead of publicly.
If Americans want to fight for Pollard’s release, that is fine. If government officials want to argue that clemency is in order that is also right and proper and if the Israeli prime minister wants to fight for the release of a fellow Jew it is his prerogative to do so. But if the idea is to fight for an imprisoned Israeli Jew whose freedom might actually have an impact on the peace process, Netanyahu should shout loud, often and exclusively for the release of Gilad Shalit. Shalit is the Jew held captive by the Palestinians and Shalit is the Israeli whose release from captivity in Gaza might signal that Palestinians respect the lives and existence of their neighbor and are ready to negotiate.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist blogs for the New York Post at nypost.com/blogs/capitol and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)