The decision of Secretary of State John Kerry to inject the question of Jonathan Pollard into his quest to keep Middle East peace negotiations alive was a complete and total fiasco. As I noted earlier today, not only was it a futile “Hail Mary” pass that was contemptuously torpedoed by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, even if both the PA and Israel had agreed to the terms of the proposed deal—which would have required Israel to free another batch of terrorist murderers and several hundred other security prisoners—it would have only meant continued negotiations with little hope that they will lead to an actual agreement.
The collapse of this effort is a great disappointment to those who have worked for Pollard’s release and a relief to those who want him to rot in jail. But the most disturbing element of this incident is not so much the latest proof of Kerry’s foolishness as it is the way that the discussion over Pollard has brought back to the surface the myths and misinformation about the case that come to the fore every time his name is in the news. Though advocates for his release are right to view Pollard’s sentence as excessive, much of what we have been hearing about him this week demonstrates anew the extent of the damage that he and his handlers did to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
At its heart, the debate about Pollard is about two competing themes. As I wrote in a comprehensive summary of the case three years ago, both Pollard’s defenders and his critics exaggerate their arguments. Though the information Pollard passed to the Israelis was, no doubt, useful to them, the assumption that it was a game-changer in terms of its security is unfounded. So, too, is the notion that the Israelis had a “right” to the information.
By the same token, the comparisons made between Pollard and various Soviet agents are absurd. Pollard was not spying for a hostile power and there is no evidence, nor even a reasonable argument to be made on behalf of the notion that he was in any way responsible for the deaths of U.S. agents in the field. Nor was what he did was in any way comparable to the revelations of Edward Snowden who deliberately sought to undermine U.S. intelligence operations and then fled to the safety of a hostile nation where he continues to thumb his nose at the United States. What he did was bad enough and deserving of severe punishment, but the manner with which the intelligence establishment has demonized him and made his release even after decades in prison and long after any information he might have possessed was relevant is as excessive as it is illogical.
The fact remains no one who ever spied for an ally—something that the U.S. has no scruples about doing itself with regard to Israel or other friendly nations like Germany—has ever received such a harsh sentence. Most such incidents are quickly covered up and forgotten. While Pollard’s espionage was particularly egregious, the life sentence he received violated the plea bargain negotiated with him by the government. The main reason he is still in jail is not so much the desire of the government to keep him locked up but the result of legal errors by his original attorneys that prevented appeals that would have almost certainly been successful in reducing his sentence. After 28 years, many of them in solitary, it cannot be asserted that he has not been punished or that defense of the rule of law depends on his continued incarceration. Since he will be eligible for parole in the fall of 2015, the talk about keeping him in prison forever is just hot air.
Nevertheless, this is an apt moment for both Israelis and Americans who are campaigning for his release to recognize that efforts to portray him as a hero are as damaging as they are misguided. It is legitimate for the Israeli government to seek the release of someone who is being punished for acts committed in the name of their country. But those who succumb to the temptation to treat his actions as anything other than a profoundly misguided operation are dead wrong.
Anyone listening to the debate about Pollard being conducted in the last week must understand that his name is synonymous with charges of dual loyalty against American Jews who serve in both the U.S. government and its armed forces. As I detailed in my 2011 article, the damage that the cynical decision to employ a foolish and unstable person as a spy has done to American Jews and to the vital alliance between the U.S. and Israel is incalculable.
While after serving so much time in prison he is deserving of clemency, I stand by my previous conclusion about what should be the final word about this subject:
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.