Commentary Magazine


Topic: Caspar Weinberger

Pollard Parole Denial Is Unjust

Throughout the decades during which the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has been debated, those advocating for his freedom have been told that they need to follow the legal process rather than relying on political pressure, whether from sympathetic Israelis or Americans, to grant him clemency. In particular, once the time drew near for his first parole hearing, those who considered his life sentence disproportionate were warned to focus on that avenue rather than others that merely provoked the usual round of apoplectic responses from the U.S. security establishment. But now that the news has belatedly come out that Pollard was summarily denied parole in August after his first request for parole since his 1985 imprisonment on grounds that are inarguably false, the arguments for some sort of presidential intervention in the issue appear much stronger.

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Throughout the decades during which the fate of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard has been debated, those advocating for his freedom have been told that they need to follow the legal process rather than relying on political pressure, whether from sympathetic Israelis or Americans, to grant him clemency. In particular, once the time drew near for his first parole hearing, those who considered his life sentence disproportionate were warned to focus on that avenue rather than others that merely provoked the usual round of apoplectic responses from the U.S. security establishment. But now that the news has belatedly come out that Pollard was summarily denied parole in August after his first request for parole since his 1985 imprisonment on grounds that are inarguably false, the arguments for some sort of presidential intervention in the issue appear much stronger.

Let’s specify, as I wrote in a COMMENTARY magazine essay in 2011 after he had already spent 25 years in prison, that Jonathan Pollard is not the hero or the martyr some of his less reasonable supporters claim him to be. The former U.S. Navy analyst did great damage to the United States when he spied for Israel from 1984 to 1985. He also did great harm to the alliance between the two countries, the blame for which also belongs to his cynical Israeli handlers as well as the trio of leaders of the Jewish state at the time, of which only one, Shimon Peres, is still alive after the deaths of Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir. The spy also deserves opprobrium for lending credence to those anti-Semites and foes of Israel who have tried to cast a shadow on the service of the many loyal American Jews that work in the defense establishment.

But once we admit that, the argument for his continued incarceration is insubstantial. Pollard’s sentence was far greater than that given to anyone who has ever spied for a nation that is a close ally of the United States. Moreover, the claims made at the time of his arrest that he was somehow responsible for the penetration of U.S. intelligence by the Soviet Union was exploded in the years following his arrest when it was revealed that naval officer John Walker, national security analyst Ronald Pelton, and especially Aldrich Ames, a top CIA counterintelligence officer, were actually working for the Russians. Those facts now make the over-the-top claims that Pollard’s espionage was the worst in American history by then Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger look more like hyperbole than analysis. Even Weinberger subsequently backtracked from that assertion and admitted that the Pollard case was a relatively “minor matter.”

But if reports of the Parole Board’s deliberations are correct, Weinberger’s outdated claims were precisely what led to Pollard being denied parole.

That’s why a group of eight former top U.S. defense officials have signed a letter denouncing the decision and calling for clemency for Pollard.

It should be understood that although what Pollard did was wrong and deserved harsh punishment, there is simply no rationale for keeping him in prison. Considering that other spies for friendly foreign powers have been routinely deported, exchanged, or given far less harsh sentences, the treatment meted out to Pollard is disproportionate and therefore unjust. Nor, despite the hysteria in the defense establishment about keeping him in prison, is there any reason to keep him there for security purposes. There is literally nothing secret that he might still remember from his days at the Navy Department that is of the least utility to anyone 30 years later.

One doesn’t have to think well of Pollard or even of some of his vocal supporters to understand that there is something egregious about the desire of some in the government to see him die in prison after so much time served. As I documented in my magazine article, Pollard has suffered from bad legal representation and just as inept efforts by some who have worked on his behalf in the public sphere. But for the Parole Commission to buy into the old Weinberger myths about the fantastic nature of his crime presented by the government at the hearing was wrong.

The Obama administration, which is the least friendly to Israel since that of Dwight Eisenhower, would seem an unlikely candidate to free Pollard and it is doubtful that anyone in the White House is seriously considering his fate. But if the president is interested in a cost-free way to lower tensions with Jerusalem caused by the egregious “chickensh*t” controversy as well as the debate about nuclear negotiations with Iran, they might consider putting an end to the travesty of his continued imprisonment. Pollard constitutes a permanent irritant to the alliance. That is especially true because of the predilection on the part of some in both the Clinton and Obama administrations for spreading loose talk about using his freedom as a bargaining chip in Middle East negotiations even though it is doubtful than any Israeli government would give up on its security interests for the sake of the spy.

Keeping Pollard in prison on the basis of old and inaccurate accusations is just wrong. What he did was bad enough and for that all associated with the incident should hang their heads in shame. But it is time for someone in the U.S. government to put an end to this mockery of justice and let him go.

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Reagan and Israel: the Real Story

Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

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Any time tensions rise between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the two leaders are treated to a two-step process: headlines proclaiming the U.S.-Israel relationship at a low ebb followed by commentators pointing out that it has been far worse in the past, and to please have some perspective. That is true, and exaggeration should always be avoided. But it’s also important to understand the U.S.-Israel relationship through the years in the proper context.

Because Republicans today are more supportive of Israel than Democrats, someone usually pops up to say that Obama and Bibi may not like each other very much, but even Ronald Reagan–this is meant to underscore conservatives’ supposed lack of perspective–treated his Israeli counterpart worse than this. A favorite column for these writers is Chemi Shalev’s 2011 Haaretz piece titled “If Obama treated Israel like Reagan did, he’d be impeached.”

During the current conflict in Gaza the column has been surfaced as usual, recently by Gene Healy in the Washington Examiner. Today in Haaretz, Gershom Gorenberg doesn’t cite Shalev but does take a walk down memory lane to point out many of the times the U.S.-Israel relationship has been in far worse shape, taking a shot at Reagan and his admirers along the way.

So what are all these writers overlooking? Put simply, it’s context. There’s no question Reagan had his fights with then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But the question isn’t whether Obama would be “impeached” for treating Israel the way Reagan did. It’s why Obama, or any modern president, gets such pushback anytime the rhetoric approaches that of decades past. It’s not because of the “Israel Lobby.” It’s largely because of the way the U.S.-Israel relationship improved under Reagan and became what it is today.

In 2011, I contributed a post to National Review Online’s “Reagan at 100” series of remembrances NR was running on its Corner blog in honor of Reagan’s centennial. I wrote about Reagan and Begin. Here is part of my post:

Israel’s counteroffensive against the PLO in South Lebanon strained the relationship. But here, too, Reagan proved he could be open-minded about Israel’s predicament. When Reagan lectured Begin on the reports of civilian casualties, Begin painstakingly explained how the media reports not only weren’t true, but could not possibly be true. In a meeting that was supposed to be a dressing-down, Reagan became convinced the Israelis were getting a bad rap in the press. He brought Begin in to meet with his cabinet and told Begin to repeat to them what he had just told the president. Begin obliged, and left feeling a bit better about the trust between the two men.

Another test came with the killings at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The Israelis were blamed for supposedly allowing the massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militias. The accusation was outrageous, but it wounded Begin. Here again, however, Reagan stood out. [Yehuda] Avner was able to report to his boss that “there are people in the [Reagan] administration who are angry, but not the president.”

The point is that the Begin premiership was a series of challenges for Israel, its allies, and the Jewish diaspora. When Likud won national elections for the first time in 1977, the Columbia Journalism Review noted in a piece two years ago, “[Abba] Eban and others would continue to lunch with their friends at the Times in New York, where they regularly predicted the imminent collapse of the Begin government.” This cohort “spoke frequently to their friends in the media, telling them that the new crowd was a disaster, ‘that Begin was an extreme nationalist, a war-monger.’”

So Begin came into office with Israeli figures already trying to convince Americans they shouldn’t get used to dealing with Begin. Then came Israel’s raid on the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, which Reagan thought he’d been excluded from by Begin when in fact Jimmy Carter had been in consultation with Israel about the threat from the reactor; it was Carter who left Reagan out of the loop. The former American president was poisoning the well of the American government against Begin and Likud.

He didn’t have a ton of poisoning to do with some of Reagan’s advisors. In discussing the Begin inner circle (of which he was a part) and its impression of Caspar Weinberger, Yehuda Avner repeats the wonderful, though likely apocryphal, anecdote that Weinberger, in explaining why he lost his bid for California attorney general, said “Because the Jews knew I wasn’t Jewish and the Gentiles thought I was.” Whatever the actual reasons for their distrust of Begin’s team, which included Ariel Sharon, the relationship between the two Cabinets was icy.

That only increased with the war in Lebanon, Sabra and Shatila, Reagan’s rejected peace plan, etc. But there was one exception: Reagan. He made sure to treat Begin with a legitimacy that was lacking in everyone else’s approach to him. By the end of Reagan’s first term, Begin grew accustomed to being treated with respect by Reagan and being given the benefit of the doubt.

Had Carter still been in office, any one of those challenges might have seriously derailed the relationship at a time (the first Lebanon war) when Israel’s international isolation seemed assured. Reagan may have offered tough love, but it was love nonetheless. And the U.S.-Israel special relationship never looked back. For all the Reagan-Begin disagreements, the U.S.-Israel relationship came out stronger than it was when their respective terms in office began. That’s a tougher standard to meet, which is why the current president’s defenders resort to hyperbole and cherry-picked history that obscure the full picture.

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