The Curious Case of Jonathan Pollard

One of the stranger aspects of the current round of the interminable Israeli-Palestinian peace talks is the reported idea that the U.S. is considering releasing Jonathan Pollard as an inducement to keep the Israeli government at the peace table for a few more months. Pollard is an American Jew who was an intelligence analyst for the Pentagon in the 1980s before he was caught passing highly classified material to Israel and sentenced to life imprisonment. There are many layers to this strange story.

First, if it takes the release of a spy to keep Israel at the peace table, one wonders what kind of peace process we are talking about here. Surely if the Netanyahu government saw peace as a national interest, it would stay at the table for its own sake. That Secretary of State Kerry would consider this says more about how desperate he is to keep the process going than about how desperate Israel is for peace.

A dangerous precedent could be set here: if one betrays one’s country for a cause one genuinely believes in, should one receive a lesser sentence?

Second, Pollard’s case exemplifies the deeper layers of the U.S.-Israel relationship—those which go on below the eternal declarations of unshakeable friendship and common aims. In fact, it is a sometimes stormy relationship, marked by mistrust as much as by friendship. The U.S. provides Israel with billions every year; ensures that it has the most feared military in the region; turns a blind eye to Israeli proliferation; and routinely deploys its veto to shield Israel from censure by the UN Security Council.  And in return, America gets an ally who eagerly accepts a walk-in spy like Pollard and pays him handsomely to betray U.S. secrets. It gets an ally who is willing to extract this kind of concession in return for agreeing to keep talking to the Palestinians, knowing that the failure of the peace process would deal a blow to U.S. diplomacy in the region—but who seems to have no intention of making the kinds of concessions that would actually be required to make peace. With friends like these…. (Stephen Harper, take note.)

But the Pollard case rarely gets mentioned publicly in the U.S. There are fears that if the U.S. public were too aware of this, difficult questions might be asked among the broader body politic. Better to let this sleeping dog lie. One of the fears surrounding his possible release is that he would go to live out his life in Israel (which granted him citizenship and asylum after he had been caught and imprisoned), and would get a very public hero’s welcome upon arrival. That might raise some difficult questions on main street America.

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Third, the Pollard case cuts to the heart of the difficult matter of the loyalties of American Jews. After Pollard was arrested, many U.S. Jews occupying sensitive positions in the U.S. bureaucracy felt a chill in terms of whether they would be granted high-level security clearances. Interviewed in the New York Times this week, former senior officials such as Dan Kurtzer and Dennis Ross—both American Jews with impeccable records of dedicated service to their country—recalled that in the years after Pollard, they were scrutinised with extra care before being granted clearances. Many American Jews I know in the U.S. security and diplomatic establishment are adamant (in private) that Pollard should stay in jail.

And yet, many elements of the larger American Jewish community have campaigned for his release for years, as has the Israeli government itself. They note that Pollard spied for a friend, rather than an enemy.  But this raises hard questions about whether it is possible to discriminate between different kinds of treachery—not to mention about what a ‘friend’ was doing spying on the U.S. in the first place. A dangerous precedent could be set here: if one betrays one’s country for a cause one genuinely believes in, should one receive a lesser sentence? America’s intelligence community is adamant that Pollard should remain in jail precisely because they fear such a precedent being set.

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Let’s be realistic: if Pollard had spied on behalf of any other country, would we even be talking about this? If he were an American of Russian or Chinese descent who had passed highly classified material to Moscow or Beijing, would there be a campaign for his release? Would his freedom be on the table to induce Moscow or Beijing to do something that they should want to do anyway?

This entire discussion is surreal on so many levels. Pollard betrayed his country and he knew full well what he was doing. He should rot in prison where he belongs, and American Jews should be the first to demand that he stay there.

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