When evaluating the current flurry of activity surrounding efforts to free Jonathan Pollard, two assumptions should be kept in mind.
First: Things don’t just happen.
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And second: Anything publicly being done by the Israeli government on the matter is known in advance by Washington. Israel is not looking to ambush the US administration on Pollard-related issues.
With those two assumptions in mind, the timing of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s announcement that now, 25 years after Pollard was arrested, Israel will publicly ask the US president to release him takes on added interest.
Two key questions that must be asked are “Why now?” and “What took so long?” Why wasn’t this public appeal done years ago? The official response to that question from the Prime Minister’s Office is that a cost-benefit analysis was done among the powers that be with the conclusion that whereas in the past the feeling was that more could be done for Pollard in closed-door meetings, now the sense is that he would benefit from the light the media will shine on a public Israeli governmental appeal. The PMO also said that Netanyahu received a request from Pollard himself, via his wife Esther, to make an official and public request for his release.
But, obviously, there is much more at work. Which leads to the second assumption, that the US administration did not first learn through the media about Netanyahu’s intention to officially call for Pollard’s freedom. The administration was obviously told in advance and might – in fact – have been involved in coordinating the timing of the announcement.
Right now Pollard, in the words of Ra’anan Gissin, Ariel Sharon’s long-time spokesman, could be a vital “bridge over troubled waters” between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama that could lead to breaking the current logjam in the diplomatic process.
Gissin was at the Wye River Plantation in 1998, serving as the spokesman for Sharon – who, at the time, was Netanyahu’s foreign minister – and remembers that there was such confidence that Pollard would be freed at that time that there was actually discussion about where he would be sitting on the plane ride back to Israel.
Indeed, former US president Bill Clinton said in a conversation with a prominent US Jewish leader in September that when Netanyahu went to the Wye River Plantation talks with Yasser Arafat, he thought that he would return to Israel with Pollard.
In the end, a deal to release Pollard as part of the agreements with Arafat was scuttled when then-CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if the deal went through. One of the US officials who was involved in the issue at the time was Dennis Ross, who was in Israel last week.
Ross dealt at some length in his memoir “The Missing Peace” about how the Pollard issue played out during the Wye talks, and wrote that Clinton considered releasing Pollard to try to ensure that an Israeli-PA deal would be sealed.
“Is it a big political issue in Israel? Will it help Bibi?” Ross paraphrased Clinton as saying. “‘Yes,’ I replied,” Ross wrote, “because he is considered a soldier for Israel and ‘there is an ethos in Israel that you can never leave a soldier behind in the field.’ But if you want my advice, I continued, I would not release him now. ‘It would be a huge payoff for Bibi; you don’t have many like this in your pocket. I would save it for permanent status. You will need it later, don’t use it now.’”
“The President had a different view,” Ross wrote. “You know, he said, ‘I usually agree with you, but this stalemate [in the diplomatic process] has lasted so long that it has created a kind of constipation. Release it and a lot becomes possible. I don’t think we can afford to wait, and if Pollard is the key to getting it done now, we should do it.’”
Ross, in a footnote, wrote that he was in favor of Pollard’s release, “believing that he had received a harsher sentence that others who had committed comparable crimes.” Ross wrote that he preferred “not tying the release to an agreement, but if that was what we were going to do, I favored saving it for a permanent status.”
And now here we are, some 12 years later, and certain things have simply not changed: Netanyahu and Ross are still central actors in the diplomatic drama, the diplomatic process remains “constipated,” and Pollard is still languishing in prison, serving a life sentence for spying.
Certain stars in the diplomatic universe may be correctly aligned at this moment, making Pollard’s release now – as part of a bigger package – more probable, though far from certain, than it was 12 years ago.
First is Obama’s weakened position in the eyes of the not insignificant swaths of American Jewish community. Two years after taking office, and two years before seeking office again, the president still needs to convince not inconsiderable segments of the American Jewish community, including many who voted for him in 2008, that he is genuine in his expressed support for Israel’s security.
According to figures put out by J Street, 66% of Jews voted Democratic in the recent midterm elections. While J Street said this “bucked the national trend,” it was still 12 percent less than the 78% Jewish vote Obama took in his presidential race – proof the President does indeed need to shore things up with many American Jews.
After Obama’s first two rather rocky years with Israel, releasing
Pollard would be a huge push on the reset button in his relations with
American Jews. With this move, he could say, “See, I really do care
about Israel, and am doing something no other US president was willing
For Israelis, including senior government officials, releasing Pollard
would go a long way in rebuilding trust with the president. Netanyahu,
who back in 1998 knew – according to Ross – that gaining Pollard’s
release would make selling the Wye agreements much easier back home,
would now be able to say that the release shows Obama is indeed “back on
our side” and could be trusted.
And with that trust, Obama could then ask concessions from the prime
minister – perhaps being more accommodating in presenting his version of
a final map – that Netanyahu has hitherto been unwilling to give.