Peace, not Pollard, is the issue

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt of pulling Jonathan Pollard into the US diplomatic efforts in the peace process testifies to Israel seeking to serve its own interests rather than a peace deal with the Palestinians.

al-monitor A demonstrator waves an Israeli flag as another holds a placard during a protest calling for the release of Jonathan Pollard from a US prison, outside Israeli President Shimon Peres' residence in Jerusalem, March 19, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

Topics covered

prisoners, peace process, jonathan pollard, israel-us relations, israel, barack obama

Dec 30, 2013

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians proceeds according to lamentably predictable signals and signs. They provide a road map of sorts for the viewing public, setting targets against which an always elusive progress is measured.

One such constant is the call for the release of Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied on his country at Israel’s behest, and who has been imprisoned for almost three decades. Every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has petitioned Washington for his release. And every request has been denied.

It was recently reported that Israel’s President Shimon Peres has decided to dedicate the remaining few months of his presidency “to increase the pressure on US President Barack Obama, to convince him to release the spy.”

Peres has born this cross before. On at least one previous occasion he carried a signed petition to Obama calling for Pollard’s release, only to be rebuffed.

Peres has declared that Pollard’s release is on the top of his agenda in the few months remaining in his term, more important than fixing Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, or Iran for that matter.

Peres' grandstanding was itself sparked by reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has formally raised the issue, and not for the first time, with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Netanyahu, the reports suggest, wants the United States to pay for his politically charged agreement to release Palestinian prisoners by freeing Pollard, or at least agreeing to release him in the future.

Pollard’s record of treachery has been sugarcoated by commentary, often written by Israel correspondents who think that he has suffered enough and that the time is long past to secure his release.

Proponents of clemency share a common view of Pollard's motivation (benign if not patriotic), the nature of his espionage (directed at Arab military and nuclear capabilities) and the value of the intelligence he stole (vital to Israel and not harmful to US interests).

There is of course another side to this story — the factual one. 

David Geneson, one of the two US assistant attorneys who prosecuted Pollard, offered the most revealing key to the nature of Pollard’s betrayal. His views have been amplified by a declassified top secret 166-page report: “The Jonathan Jay Pollard Espionage Case: A Damage Assessment,” prepared in 1987 by the CIA.

The report notes that Pollard “eagerly seized an opportunity to volunteer his services to Israeli intelligence in late June 1984.”

The damage to critical US national security interests wrought by Pollard remains most decisive and compelling rationale for Washington’s uncharacteristic steadfastness in the wake of Israeli remonstrations.

The CIA damage assessment notes that Israel tasked Pollard to steal US information on Arab (and Pakistani) nuclear intelligence; Arab exotic weaponry, including chemical weapons; Soviet aircraft; Soviet air defenses; Soviet air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface missiles; and Arab order-of-battle, deployments and readiness.

Pollard, notes Geneson, disclosed and thus compromised "a range of this country's most important secrets … huge amounts of highly classified information.” 

Ask anyone in Washington to define the United States’ “most important secrets.'' The unanimous response includes information relating to the targeting by the United States of Soviet nuclear and military installations and the capabilities and defenses of these sites — certainly not pictures of Yasser Arafat's Tunisian redoubt or Saddam Hussein's Scud sites.

The only relevant issue today, however, is not the scale of Pollard’s duplicity or whether he has paid for his crimes, but the significance of Israel’s demand for his release to the US-sponsored peace talks.

Here we can say the following:

Netanyahu’s effort to tie progress on Pollard’s release to at best marginal advances in Kerry’s tentative diplomacy is yet another reflection that Israel does not take the US effort seriously. Kerry already has problems enough. To add to these by bringing Pollard into the mix at this stage — as Netanyahu is doing — suggests that Israel is not so much interested in a successful effort to reconcile with the Palestinians and with the Arabs in general on the terms Kerry has outlined, but rather is seeking to use the process to strong-arm Washington to make gains in other arenas.

It would be one thing to include Pollard’s release as part of a “grand bargain” on final status issues that includes evacuating settlements and setting the borders of a Palestinian state. Even at the Wye House plantation talks in 1998, Netanyahu raised the (unsuccessful) demand for Pollard’s release only as part of an agreement on further re-employments of the Israel Defense Forces from the West Bank. At this point, however, Netanyahu is trying to score cheap points with his domestic opponents at Obama’s expense and to further weaken the process Kerry is trying to build. Imagine Obama acceding to Pollard’s release, only to be confronted with yet another declaration of settlement expansion of the kind that is now in the works. That might suit Netanyahu’s interest, but certainly not Obama’s or that of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas

There is absolutely no chance that Obama will release Pollard in response to an Israeli request of this sort, and Netanyahu knows this well. Israel’s demand is meant to antagonize the still large, bipartisan core of US officials in the defense and security establishments who continue to oppose Pollard’s release under any circumstances, let alone for the at best marginal gain that would attend his release at this moment.

If Netanyahu thinks the can push the United States to free Pollard as part of what is in fact an insignificant point in the talks with the PLO, he has yet to be convinced that this time Kerry and Obama are indeed serious about reaching an agreement. Here it is the responsibility of Obama's White House to make its commitment to success unambiguously clear. The corollary is also true. If Obama frees Pollard now — not as part of a final status agreement of historic proportions but rather as a superfluous US concession to Israel — he will undermine, not strengthen, the already questionable prospect of such an agreement.

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