Leave Pollard Where He Is

April 1, 2014 § 19 Comments

The last time I wrote about Jonathan Pollard was two years ago after Shimon Peres made a personal appeal to President Obama for Pollard’s release, an appeal that was thankfully turned down. I had hoped to never have to waste even a minute of my time on the subject again, but the U.S. is now reportedly considering releasing Pollard in exchange for Israel agreeing to extend the current peace talks through 2015 and to enact a partial settlement freeze. Pollard’s release would also be accompanied by Israel releasing an additional 400 Palestinian prisoners on top of the ones whom they already agreed to release.

Let’s start with Pollard himself. What directly prompted my blog post last time was Gilad Shalit’s father publicly offering his support for Pollard’s cause to Pollard’s wife, and now Gilad Shalit himself has sent a letter to Obama requesting clemency for the unrepentant spy. While I understand Shalit’s personal sympathy for someone who has spent an extended period under lock and key, the comparison between Pollard and Shalit is odious. What I wrote two years ago has not changed one iota, and so I am going to reproduce it once again in the next paragraph as a handy reminder of why Pollard and Shalit do not belong in the same universe, let alone the same sentence.

Shalit was a 19 year old conscript captured by a terrorist organization that illegally breached the border fence and abducted him on Israeli territory. Pollard was a 31 year old civilian analyst who committed espionage in exchange for cash and jewelry and pled guilty to spying against his own country. Shalit’s actions were in no way responsible for his abduction (and please, spare me the noxious theory that all Israeli soldiers everywhere are legitimate targets no matter the circumstance) and he was not engaged in any hostilities against his captors at the time of his being taken hostage. Pollard’s actions are directly responsible for his imprisonment, as he stole classified information and passed on thousands of documents to a foreign government. Shalit was held in terrible conditions in violation of the Geneva Conventions and despite calls from the U.N., the Red Cross, the G-8, and individual countries for his immediate and unconditional release. Pollard is a legitimate prisoner under the laws of the United States and in accordance with international norms, is housed in safe and sanitary conditions in a medium security federal prison, and no international governmental organizations or human rights groups have called for his release. Shalit was illegally held by Hamas as a hostage for the sole purpose of extorting Israel into complying with Hamas demands and not because Shalit had any information or intelligence that would be of value to his abductors. Pollard is alleged by the U.S. to have an unacknowledged accomplice (according to former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon) and the precise details of everything that Pollard passed on are still unclear. Shalit did not have to express remorse for his actions because he took no actions at all. Pollard remains unrepentant for spying against his own country. Shalit has been an Israeli citizen from birth, embraced both de facto and de jure by his country by virtue of being unambiguously and openly sent by Israel to serve in the military. Pollard did not become an Israeli citizen until 1995 after he had been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned, and Israel did not admit until 1998 that he was working on Israel’s behalf with its full knowledge and authorization. Shalit’s abduction did not subject any of his fellow citizens to additional danger or peril, nor did it damage Israel’s relations with any other country. Pollard’s spying cast serious aspersions on every Jewish citizen of the United States and created a backlash against Israel in the U.S. intelligence community. Shalit is an innocent kid who was held hostage by terrorists. Pollard is a traitorous spy who is wholly deserving of remaining in jail.

Even all of this aside, which should be more than enough reason to leave Pollard exactly where he is, releasing Pollard in the context of current negotiations is a terrible mistake. Pollard himself has nothing to do with an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. He is not being held by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, his actions were in no way related to the conflict, and his status should be completely unrelated to the talks. That the Israeli government would link his release to its own willingness to resolving a wholly separate issue is shameful. If Israel does not think that it is in its own best interests to continue negotiating or if it genuinely believes that it has no reliable partner across the table, then it should end the negotiations irrespective of what the U.S. offers since to do otherwise would be to take a concession in bad faith. Conversely, if the Israeli government believes that negotiations stand a good chance of success and that a deal with the Palestinians would be in Israel’s best interests, then it is monstrously dumb to link the willingness to keep on talking to Pollard’s release. Pollard is a factor that has no impact at all on the substance of a deal. His remaining in prison or his walking out a free man will not make Israel any safer or any more trustful of the Palestinians, and so using him as a reason to either keep negotiating or cease negotiating makes absolutely no sense at all from a substantive perspective. Were I the U.S., I would call this bluff without blinking.

Furthermore, if the negotiations are going so poorly that Israel will only agree to keep them going if Pollard is let out, then the two sides stand very little chance of coming to an agreement. That being the case, why release Pollard for such an ephemeral concession? Were the talks in their end stages and Israel needed a small push to get over the finish line, then the logic would make more sense, but Israel agreeing to extend the talks for another nine months and not issuing any new housing tenders in the West Bank in return for Pollard more likely than not means that the two sides will waste another nine months and then return to the status quo ante. This is a move that absolutely reeks of desperation on the Obama administration’s part, and it shows. John Kerry pretty clearly wants this to succeed more badly than either of the two actual parties to the conflict, and he is willing to do anything to advance the ball inches down the field. That is admirable tenacity, but in this case his tactic is a mistake that is not going to lead to any long term success.

I have no inside information as to how close Pollard’s release is to actually happening, but my best guess is that the administration leaked this as a trial balloon to gauge the reaction from the national security community and from the American Jewish community. I hope that the people at the Pentagon, CIA, and other agencies freak out over the news, make a big public stink, and Pollard remains locked up. His release will only cause problems for the American Jewish community, will not advance the cause of peace, and will create a terrible set of incentives for both the Israelis and the Palestinians that as long as they commit to a process, irrespective of any real progress, they can ask for any outrageous concession they want and will likely get it.


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§ 19 Responses to Leave Pollard Where He Is

  • Donna Divine says:

    I agree with all your comments and also believe this is a measure of Secretary of State Kerry’s desperation. But I have a question. Would a Pollard release be worth a settlement freeze particularly if his release is the only way to insure Israeli Government support for it? If Netanyahu agreed to a settlement freeze without the release of Pollard and his government fell, would that contribute anything positive to a peace process. Just asking…

    • To my mind, it would not. A temporary partial settlement freeze by itself is not an end; it is a means to getting to a final status agreement. From my limited vantage point, based on everything I’ve seen a partial settlement freeze at this point in time is not the final key to a comprehensive agreement. There are still large gaps over security forces in the Jordan Valley, recognition of a Jewish state, Jerusalem (which I’ve heard is not even going to be addressed in a framework agreement because it is still too thorny)…the point being that releasing Pollard for a temporary settlement freeze that ends up going nowhere seems like a terrible idea to me. On the issue of the Netanyahu government falling if it agrees to a settlement freeze absent Pollard’s release, I don’t think that is likely either. Even if Yisrael Beiteinu pulls out, Shas will jump in, and so would Labor if Buji Herzog was convinced that a peace agreement was imminent. Do you see things differently?

      • Donna Divine says:

        You never know who will jump in as Netanyahu knows from his experience in the 1990s. But if Shas jumps in, will Yesh Atid have to jump out. Makes it messy at the very least. I agree with you that this all is likely to go nowhere. I also think Bennett wants to remain in the govt. He has large ambitions. I find him a very interesting politician. But he may need the fig leaf. I think that weakening the Israeli govt at this point is not going to help the issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Tying more political forces to diplomacy may serve some purpose.

      • I agree with your last point in principle about tying more political forces to diplomacy being a good thing. I guess I don’t see the point of something like this at what appears to be a relatively early stage and as a last-gasp effort to save something that is perhaps unsalvageable.

  • DMS says:

    I’d like to think it is merely an awkward and inappropriate April fools joke.

  • Julian Mannino says:

    There will be no deal. Abbas will never see a deal as good as the one he turned down from Olmert. Negotiations based on Israel bribing the Palestinians to talk is absurd. if the Palestinians really wanted a state and not the destruction of Israel, there wouldn’t be a need to beg them to come to the table.
    Your rage about Pollard is hypocritical. Didn’t we just find out how pervasive US spying on Israel is? Israeli diplomats knew every phone call they made was being bugged by the US.

    • What about what I wrote is hypocritical? First, I don’t recall commenting on the U.S. spying efforts. Second, and more importantly, Pollard was not an Israeli spying on the U.S. but an American spying on his own country. The situations are not parallel.

  • amiel savaldi says:

    you feel so strongly about letting Pollard die in prison, without ever being tried (as you know, Pollard was sentenced based on a plea bargain which was not kept…)
    where is your sense of justice and compassion?

    Israel always said it is ready to talk anytime and anywhere without conditions, and never threatened to leave the talks….

    Your assertion that Israel asked for Pollard’s release as a condition to continue with the process is simply not true

    both the Israelis and Palestinians want to avoid being blamed for the talks collapse, and both probably agree on Yaalon’s assessment of Kerry’s mission…

    • He pled guilty to a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison in return for not being charged with more serious offenses. In what way was this not kept? As for my sense of justice, please point me to one judicial system in the entire world that allows for a trial after someone has pled guilty. You are implying that Pollard is in some way a political prisoner, which is entirely false. Why do you think he is entitled to a trial?

      • amiel savaldi says:

        he pled guilty in exchange for leniency, and that agreement was not kept
        his last legal attempt to be granted a new trial was turned down on technicality, with the dissenting judge agreeing this case was a travesty of justice…
        after 29 years, isn’t it time?
        George Schultz, James Woolsey and many others think it is

      • DMS says:

        As many have said that Yes Pollard should be freed but not as part of these negotiations.

  • […] Pollard is a traitor. Releasing him as part of a deal to find some way forward in Israel-Palestine would be a low-point in America’s dealings with the Jewish state, and another sign of just how much contempt the Israeli government has for the United States. Koplow fumes: […]

  • Simi says:


    I completely agree that it makes no sense for Pollard to be part of any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Like you said, he is in no way connected.

    One issue I have, though, is your line: “That the Israeli government would link his release to its own willingness to resolving a wholly separate issue is shameful”.

    What makes you think that the Israelis came up with this foolish idea? As you say yourself in the next paragraph: “This is a move that absolutely reeks of desperation on the Obama administration’s part, and it shows”.

    What seems “shameful” to me is that the United States of America would assume a position on the Palestinian side of the negotiating table and volunteer concessions on their behalf!


  • Simi says:

    Not to mention the way it is presented in the JPost article linked above

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