Netanyahu looks to leverage Snowden scandal to secure Pollard's release

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has two cards to play when lobbying for Jonathan Pollard's release: the US espionage scandal and the expected third phase of the Palestinian prisoner release.

al-monitor An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past posters calling for US President Barack Obama to free Jonathan Pollard from a US prison, Jerusalem, March 20, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

spies, palestinian authority, jonathan pollard, israeli military intelligence, israel, benjamin netanyahu

Dec 26, 2013

Edward Snowden, the American who leaked sensitive information, pats himself on the back. “The mission’s already accomplished,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. Snowden emphasized that he has no agreement with the Russian government and his only loyalties lay with his homeland, the United States, and that he even “continues to work for the NSA [National Security Agency]” — only they don't know about it.

Snowden speaks his own truth. In affairs of this type, truth is a relative term. There is no black and white here. The Snowden affair is another twist in the world war that has been waged in the last decade. It is not a classic world war with millions of casualties, continents on fire and evil empires collapsing. The current war is between the old order and the new era; between the technological revolution that is taking control of the world at a murderous pace and those people who led the world until recently (the elected leaders of the super powers).

US President Barack Obama and the heads of his intelligence arms are now experiencing this struggle through personal, first-hand experience, when an anonymous youngster no one knows and no one took into account is able to turn their world upside down.

Once, to rule in the world you needed a powerful economy, several thousand nuclear warheads and around 12 aircraft carriers. Today, the key to control the world is information. The place where the battle is waged is the web. Almost everything is virtual.

In the near future, instead of convening the G-8 group of industrialized countries, the finance sections of newspapers will cover the “T-5 committee.” In other words, the yearly convention of the Great Technological Powers (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Samsung).

Israeli President Shimon Peres has been talking openly about this phenomenon for many years. According to Peres, the world is no longer run by governments but by global organizations. After finishing his current presidential term in mid-2014, Peres intends to establish an umbrella organization of the world’s largest global corporations and head it. He will yet run the world, that Peres. At the age of 92.

Evidently, the bastards changed the rules of the game, though no official notices have been sent yet. This is an historic argument that has not been decided, and there is no right or wrong here. The heads of the US intelligence arms are totally justified. They are in charge of homeland security, and they know that even in the homeland there are thousands of people — maybe even hundreds of thousands — conspiring against it. The mass immigration that continued for many decades, also from Islamic countries, created numerous dormant or active terror cells within the United States.

The situation is similar, perhaps even worse, in Britain, France, South America and many other places. Intelligence organizations cannot allow themselves the luxury of not listening in on the state’s citizens. The web is so accessible, loaded with the best there is, and humming with activity. Any country that neglects the Internet and does not try to monitor what takes places in it, essentially compromises the personal security of its citizens.

The Americans learned this the hard way on 9/11. More than a dozen years have passed since then, and the collective memory dims. Paradoxically, one large successful terrorist attack by al-Qaeda on US territory could tilt the balance of the public discourse in favor of support for NSA activities. The very success of US agencies in forestalling terror is what brings criticism to be directed at precisely those successful terror-averting agencies. It is a process of built-in destruction that we have long since been familiar with in Israel. When terror strikes in Israel and blood flows on the streets, Israeli society mobilizes, the defense budget is increased and the consensus crosses lines. But then the efforts bear fruit, terror is subdued, quiet returns. Then, on the heels of the newfound tranquility, come the cries for sharp cutbacks in the defense budget and then the debate about legitimacy. This cycle is repeated over and over.

In the midst of this hullabaloo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found an opportunity to attack the US administration regarding reports of wiretapping conducted by the United States within Israel. According to the reports, the Americans monitor the emails of the prime minister, the defense minister and other high-level officials.

According to one of these reports, the Americans rented a luxury apartment in an especially expensive building project in Tel Aviv, opposite the apartment of former Defense Minister Ehud Barak. They even installed special laser distance-monitoring equipment in the apartment. In bygone days, the Israeli government would have calmed down the atmosphere, wrapped itself in silence and put an end to the matter with the Americans behind closed doors.

But definitely not this time. Netanyahu waited one day, then another. And on Dec. 23, at the opening of the Likud faction's meeting at the Knesset, Netanyahu said, “There are certain things friends mustn't do to each other,” and that he has “requested to conduct an inquiry in the matter.” This was enough to fan the flames, which had abated, and to transform the episode into (another) real crisis between Washington and Jerusalem.

Simultaneously, Netanyahu’s people leaked that the prime minister is now requiring the release of the spy Jonathan Pollard, who has been incarcerated in a US prison for 28 years, for offenses that usually mandate prison sentences of only a few years. Netanyahu is taking a very big gamble. It is not clear the kind of cards he holds, except for the embarrassing report that America spies on Israel. After all, everyone knows that America spies on Israel. The only new thing is the authoritative dissemination of the facts by Snowden, and that juicy detail about a surveillance apartment to monitor Barak.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu decided to ratchet up the crisis. It could be that he is under stress in light of the possibility that US Secretary of State John Kerry may introduce the famous mediation document to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in a few weeks, a document we had reported on several weeks ago. Or perhaps Netanyahu really sees a true opportunity to release Pollard.

We must keep in mind that Netanyahu faces another two rounds of releases of Palestinian security prisoners, all of them murderers with Jewish blood on their hands. The first two rounds aroused much criticism of Netanyahu. Now he wants the Americans to help him get through the coming rounds, by releasing Pollard.

In the very last round, several Arab-Israeli prisoners are also due to be released. This is a dangerous precedent. Israel does not generally release its citizens according to the demands of the PA. This is a violation of its sovereignty and an official acknowledgement that Arab citizens of Israel are, in fact, subject to the authority of a foreign political entity. Netanyahu, like most of his ministers and the Israeli public, oppose the release of these prisoners. Now, Netanyahu is telling the Americans that if they want the prisoners, they have to pay the price. And the price is called "Pollard."

The very fact that Pollard is still behind bars is a mark of disgrace for every single US administration. By all human, moral and fundamental standards, Pollard should have been freed many years ago. Pollard’s tragedy is that he was not an agent of the Mossad but of an ephemeral intelligence agency called Lekem, which was disbanded after the Pollard affair exploded. This meant that Pollard had no "patron" to make efforts for his release. On the contrary: The Mossad even operated against his release because Mossad chiefs disapproved of "unauthorized" Lekem activities on US territory. Thus, for many years, the abandoned Pollard languished in prison. When the State of Israel remembered him, it was too late. The Americans demanded all the names of the numerous other agents who operated (so they thought) as part of the Lekem network. The Israelis argued that no such agents existed, and if they had operated at one time, they were immediately "put to sleep" forever in 1986, after Pollard’s arrest. Since then, this poker game continues between the two sides, while the Americans do what they are best at: completely ignoring the wishes of the other side while happily exercising the fact that they are a world power, and we are not.

The concept behind Netanyahu’s actions regarding Pollard is true and just. The question is, is it also wise? It could be that under the current circumstances it would be wiser to try to quietly close a deal with the Americans regarding a date for Pollard’s release in the near future (by granting him clemency or commuting his sentence). But Netanyahu preferred making noise, as he usually does. Let's see what will come of all this.

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