Israeli President Shimon Peres said today he would make an appeal to President Obama for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard during his visit to Washington. Peres, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony on Wednesday, has previously spoken out on Pollard’s behalf. More than 70,000 Israelis have signed a petition calling for the release of the former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel on the United States.
The appeal, as was the case with previous Israeli efforts on Pollard’s behalf, will probably result in yet another round of pro- and anti-Pollard opinion pieces and statements from his defenders and those in the U.S. defense and intelligence establishment who want to see him die in jail. But even if after more than 26 years of his imprisonment, the case for clemency based on what Peres called “humanitarian” grounds is getting stronger, it is no more likely to meet with success than previous appeals. As I wrote last year in a COMMENTARY feature on the subject, the Pollard affair has become a seemingly permanent distraction to the U.S.-Israel alliance. But if there is anyone who has a moral obligation to try to free Pollard, it is Peres.
It should be remembered that Pollard’s spying took place during the period in 1984 and 1985 when Israel’s government was run by a grand coalition in which the Likud Party led by Yitzhak Shamir and Labor, led by the late Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, shared power. Though in the aftermath of this fiasco, Israel claimed the intelligence operatives running Pollard were acting as part of a rogue operation, this was always absurd. Rafi Eitan, the head of the Defense Ministry Office of Scientific Liaison, was in charge of Pollard’s spying. But his close ties to both Rabin and Shamir, as well as the specific involvement of the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, made it clear that responsibility for this action as well as knowledge of the U.S. data procured from Pollard went all the way to the top. That means Peres was almost certainly in the loop on what was going on.
Pollard’s behavior was illegal and indefensible, but even worse can be said about the cynical way an obviously unstable individual was exploited by his handlers. The same holds true for those leaders who enabled this catastrophic error in judgment. Given the nearly sacrosanct way the intelligence apparatus is viewed by most Israelis, none of those involved in the Pollard affair were ever really held accountable for what must be termed as among the worst mistakes made in the country’s history. That is especially true of the Shamir-Rabin-Peres troika that continued to run the country for the next seven years, with Rabin and Peres governing on their own for three years after that. Indeed, Israel made no real effort to appeal for Pollard’s release until Benjamin Netanyahu came to office for the first time in 1996.
Thus, it is only fitting the octogenarian Peres should use the opportunity afforded by his receipt of the Medal of Freedom to speak of Pollard.
As to the merits of the case for clemency, they have been rehashed endlessly. Suffice to say that though Pollard does not deserve to be treated as any kind of hero, after this much passage of time, there is no rational argument to be made that the damage he did is still vital to U.S. intelligence or defense. Nor can it be claimed that after spending more time in prison than many murderers and far more than any spy for a friendly nation has ever served that his release would send the wrong message about the severity of his crime.
Nevertheless, even as one hopes that Peres’ message is well received, it should also be pointed out that the damage Pollard did to the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as to the many American Jews who have loyally served their country cannot be overestimated.
As I wrote in the March 2011 COMMENTARY:
Long after his release or death, Pollard’s behavior will still be used to bolster the slurs of those who wish to promote the pernicious myth that there is a contradiction between American patriotism and deep concern for the safety of the State of Israel. It is this damning epitaph, and not the claims of martyrdom that have been put forward to stir sympathy for his plight, that will be Jonathan Pollard’s true legacy.