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Pollard and the U.S.-Israel Spy Game

As both Omri and Seth have already pointed out, the page one story in today’s New York Times about the wiretapping of the Israeli embassy in Washington raises a host of questions. In addition to the interesting points the two have made, the story also raises the issue of how and why friendly nations engage in this sort of espionage. Even if we take it for granted, as we must, that all governments and even the closest of friends will spy on each other, many Americans will probably be surprised by the zeal with which the FBI has sought to keep tabs on a cherished ally. But any discussion must inevitably turn to the case of Jonathan Pollard, the Navy analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel.

Pollard sympathizers will note, not without some justice, the bugging of the Israeli embassy is a sign of hypocrisy on the part of a U.S. intelligence establishment that continues to block Pollard’s release even though he has already served more than 25 years in prison. But if we want to know why so many in the security apparatus still cling to the notion Israel and its supporters in this country are worthy of suspicion, we must come to grips with the terrible damage Pollard and his Israeli handlers did to both American Jews working in Washington as well as to the alliance between the two nations.

As I wrote in the March issue of COMMENTARY, there is a case to be made for mercy for Pollard simply because no other spy for a U.S. ally has ever received a life sentence or anything close to it. Because he has already served so much time in jail, there is no question of him getting off easy, especially because those who have betrayed the United States while working for other allies or even rivals like post-Soviet Russia have been treated more generously.

The problem for advocates for clemency for the spy is–there is another side to this. Though the United States has almost certainly been spying on Israel since the nation’s birth, the impetus for the embassy wiretapping as well as the outrageous and ultimately unsuccessful prosecution of two AIPAC officials in recent years stems in no small part from the belief of some in the U.S. intelligence world Pollard was the tip of the iceberg when it came to Israeli espionage. The idea  there is a second Pollard somewhere inside the government is a white whale security agents have been chasing, even though the existence of such a person is utterly improbable.

Rather than the FBI being embarrassed by the hypocrisy of demanding Pollard die in prison while at the same time going all out to spy on Israel, the security establishment seems to be undaunted in its commitment to treating the Jewish state and its friends in Washington as potential suspects. This distrust of Israel and the pro-Israel community may be rooted in a nasty mix of traditional anti-Semitism and the sort of anti-Zionism popularized by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in The Israel Lobby. But the strength of this virus can be traced in part to the backlash Pollard’s crime helped create.

It is for this reason it is doubtful the embassy wiretapping will lend much impetus to the forlorn efforts to free Pollard. His unfortunate example will continue to be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth there is a contradiction between American patriotism and concern for the safety of Israel. Both of those involved in the embassy case reported by the Times — convicted leaker Shamai Leibowitz and blogger Richard Silverstein — were vicious critics of Israel whose goal was to delegitimize advocacy for the Jewish state. Far from helping the cause of Pollard, their activities and those of the U.S. government merely illustrate once again the damage the spy did to Israel and the U.S.-Israel alliance has long outlived the usefulness of any information he may have passed along.



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