Jonathan Pollard -- an American Hostage

While nothing formal has been announced, it appears that the U.S. has embarked on a truly breathtaking course of moral equivalence.  The Obama administration appears to be pushing Israel to release a group of convicted terrorists, including Israeli-Arabs, by promising to release American Jonathan Pollard who has been imprisoned for nearly 30 years.

For those unfamiliar with the Pollard saga, a little review is in order:

In the mid-1980’s, Pollard, a civilian American Naval intelligence analyst, was discovered to have passed classified information to Israel regarding Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan and Iranian nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare capabilities being developed for use against Israel.  He also provided information on planned terrorist attacks against Israeli civilian targets.

At the request of both the U.S. and Israeli governments, Pollard entered into a plea agreement, which spared both governments a long, difficult, expensive and potentially embarrassing trial.  Pollard cooperated fully with the investigation, and expressed remorse for his actions.

Prior to sentencing, then-secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger delivered a classified memorandum to the sentencing judge to which neither Pollard nor his attorneys has ever been given access.  Contrary to the plea agreement that he had reached with the U.S. Government, Pollard received a life sentence and a recommendation that he never be paroled.

Pollard is the only person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for spying for an ally. Currently, the punishment for such a crime is set at a maximum of ten years.  The median sentence for this offense is two to four years.

Over the past several years, a wide range of American leaders and former high-level government officials have called for Pollard’s sentence to be commuted.  These officials include former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dennis DeConcini and Arlen Specter, former attorney general Michael Mukasey, former assistant secretary of defense (under Weinberger) Lawrence Kolb, and hundreds of senators and representatives.  Former CIA director James Woolsey has expressed his belief that Pollard is still in prison only because he is Jewish.

Despite all these calls for clemency, the administration has refused to budge.  Vice President Joe Biden was reported by The New York Times to have told a group of rabbis, “President Obama was considering clemency, but I told him, ‘Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time.  If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.’”

So why has the White House suddenly changed its stand on releasing Pollard?  Put very succinctly, the Israeli/Palestinian peace talks spearheaded so energetically by Secretary of State John Kerry are near collapse. 

Israel agreed to release more than 100 convicted Palestinian prisoners – many of them with blood on their hands – as an incentive for the PA to enter into talks last year.  These prisoners were to be released in tranches.  Release of the final tranche, scheduled for March 29, has been delayed because of the lack of progress toward the ultimate goal of a peace agreement.  Not surprisingly, Palestinian officials have reacted angrily, calling the delay a “slap in the face to the U.S. administration,” and blaming Israel for collapse of the negotiations.

But the delay is a reaction to, not the cause of, the failure in negotiations.  The agreement to release Palestinian terrorists was reached with a clear understanding that it would proceed to completion only if there was actual progress in the talks.  With only weeks to go until the original April 29 deadline for negotiations, the Palestinians have yet to make any substantive concessions in the talks. 

In his recent meeting with President Obama, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas categorically rejected Secretary of State Kerry’s “framework document” that would have kept the talks going.  He also repeated his adamant refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.  He vowed never to abandon the Palestinian demand for a “right of return.”  And finally, he refused to commit to an “end of conflict,” under which a peace deal would represent the termination of any further Palestinian claims against Israel.

Acceptance of the right of Jews to their own land is at the very heart of the dispute.  Denial of this right is a denial of Israel’s raison d’etre, and is the foundation on which future attempts to expel “Jewish interlopers” from their small island in the Arab sea will be based.  Recognition of Israel as the Jewish homeland is the essential first step toward meaningful negotiations. 

If implemented, the right of return would mean that millions of Palestinians would deluge pre-1967 Israel, drastically altering the country’s demographic balance.  Abbas well knows that no Israeli government could conceivably accede to that demand.

The refusal to commit to an “end of conflict” shows that any peace deal would be only a temporary time-out until the Palestinians felt strong enough to press additional demands aimed at Israel’s eventual demise.

The sum total of Abbas’s recent statements is clear:  The PA has no interest in pursuing any accommodation with Israel that would lead to a lasting peace. 

And now the U.S. is backing a new demand in a last-ditch effort to save the talks.  Israel is being asked to release the final tranche of prisoners, and to include Israeli-Arabs who have been convicted of murderous crimes.  Although the exact number is still murky, it is clear that the PA is seeking the release of many hundreds of additional prisoners if the talks are to be extended.

Regarding the release of Israeli-Arabs, we are not talking about Palestinians in the disputed territories but Israeli citizens within the pre-’67 armistice lines who have sought the violent downfall of their own country.  These convicted murders should in no way be conflated with Pollard. 

Pollard pleaded guilty to one charge: passing classified information to an ally without intent to harm the U.S.  He was never indicted for, let along convicted of, harming the U.S., or compromising codes, agents or war plans.  Most importantly, he was never charged with treason (which is only applicable when one spies for an enemy country during a time of war).  The deal that led to his guilty plea was abrogated for reasons that have never been fully explained, and he has languished in prison far longer than anyone else convicted of similar crimes. 

The Israeli-Arabs, on the other hand, were convicted of violent terrorist acts, including murder of innocent civilians.  They would be released not because their sentences are unjust, but as a misguided attempt to keep the PA involved in the peace negotiations charade.  Unlike an aging and ill Pollard who poses no conceivable future threat, many of these unrepentant killers will likely return to their terrorist ways, murdering even more Israelis.  

It is interesting to compare the American Government position on Pollard with its position on similar cases.  Remember the administration’s anger when Afghanistan announced it would release prisoners alleged (but not convicted) to have been involved in violence against American soldiers.  Member of Knesset Moshe Feiglin says that the U.S. has asked that Israel not release anyone who has killed American citizens.  Apparently, those who spill Israeli (read Jewish) blood may be forgiven for their actions.  Not so for those who kill Americans.

How about Abdelbeset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi, the only person convicted in connection with the Lockerbie airline bombing that killed 270 people?  He died more than two-and-a-half years after he was freed from a life sentence in Scotland (apparently with little if any opposition from the U.S.) because he was said to be terminally ill.  Pollard, whose health is failing, has not been accorded the same humanitarian consideration even though he killed no one.

And then there is the case of Lynne Stewart who was released from a Federal medical center this past January because she was ill.  She had been sentenced to 10 years in 2005 for passing messages for Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted of being behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Thus, someone who provides information and assistance to supporters of a terrorist is released while Pollard, who passed information to one of America’s closest allies, remains in prison.

Pollard has nothing to do with the Israeli/Palestinian dispute.  The offer to release him in exchange for convicted terrorists confirms what many have suspected for a long time – that he was being held well past any just and reasonable sentence, to be used as a bargaining chip against Israel. 

Were the proposal being made as part of a final peace agreement between the parties, it might (almost) be understandable.  But the Palestinians are being asked to give nothing except to agree to continue the fruitless talks for another few months.  If history is any guide, they will then walk out again while blaming Israeli intransigence.  

The fact that the PA has made release of murderers a basic demand of the supposed peace process is evidence of their true intentions regarding an agreement with Israel.  Prisoners released in the future will be welcomed by the PA as returning heroes (as have all the other prisoners previously freed).  They will be lionized for their contribution to the “struggle,” and Palestinian youth will be urged to follow in their footsteps.  

As they have on so many other occasions, the Obama administration is once again exalting process over substance.  The purpose of talks is not to talk, but to reach a satisfactory outcome.  The Palestinians have shown no real desire to achieve a fair accord.  Under those circumstances, the U.S. is simply enabling the PA to make more and more demands while giving nothing in return.

The U.S. now stands in the shoes of Hamas and other terror organizations that hold Jews for their own cynical purposes.  Pollard is the hostage, and Israel is being asked to release more murderers to gain his freedom.  Pollard should be released immediately because it is the right and just thing to do -- without any connection to releasing convicted terrorists.

Clearly, Pollard has become a pawn in a dangerous chess game -- a means to force Israel to make potentially deadly concessions to an unbending PA.  Israel can no longer (if it ever could) trust President Obama as a guarantor of its security.

The author is a former U.S. diplomat now living in Israel.  He is a Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, and a Senior Fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Center for International Communication.

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