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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1999, page 60

Special Report

Conflict Over Pollard Reflected in U.S., Israeli Politics

By Lama Habal

Jonathan Pollard has been back in the news ever since Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and/or President Bill Clinton injected his possible release from jail into the final day of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Wye Plantation. This "October Surprise" almost wrecked the talks, and resulted in Clinton's public promise to "review" the matter, and strong suspicions that he might have promised Netanyahu a favorable result after the U.S. elections if only he would sign the Wye agreement before them.

But if Clinton did make any such promise, he will face serious domestic opposition when he tries to carry it out. After Clinton solicited opinions from the concerned agencies of the U.S. government, he received a chorus of noes.

Pollard is regarded as a hero in Israel.

The Pollard release deliberations actually coincided with the first week of President Clinton's Senate impeachment trial, and the idea of releasing the convicted American spy for Israel turned out to be at least as controversial as the trial. Although Clinton didn't ask them, he also received a letter on Jan. 11 from 60 of the senators urging him to uphold Pollard's life sentence.

Meanwhile, a public opinion poll conducted by Zogby International and commissioned by the Council for the National Interest and the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine showed that 72.5 percent of Americans oppose Pollard's release.

Echoing this outcry, the intelligence community, the defense establishment and the U.S. State Department all have registered their opposition to Pollard's release. Meanwhile White House counsel Charles Ruff has received responses from the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department all stating concerns that Pollard's release would harm U.S. national and security interests around the world. At this writing the only report the White House is still awaiting is from the Department of Justice.

Until Janet Reno, once the most independent and now seemingly the most compliant member of the Clinton cabinet, submits her department's recommendations to the president, a final decision cannot be reached. But unless she provides Clinton a new angle upon which to base a pardon, Pollard will have plenty of time to write his memoirs from prison.

All other reports seem to echo the sentiments expressed in a letter from congressional leaders to Clinton on Oct. 27, 1998, expressing their opinion that Pollard "deserves his life sentence." And that no amount of political pressure "should compel you to grant him any reprieve or pardon."

According to Seymour Hersh in the Jan. 18, 1999 New Yorker magazine, however, The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a consortium of 55 separate groups with strong interests in supporting Israel, has called for Pollard's release because, the roof organization asserts, spying for Israel, an ally, did not amount to high treason against the United States.

Similar sentiments were expressed in a Jan. 2 Washington Post op-ed piece by Angelo Codevilla, professor of international relations at Boston University; Irwin Cotler, professor of law at McGill University; Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University; and Kenneth Lasson, professor of law at the University of Baltimore. They called on the president to "correct this longstanding miscarriage of justice," saying that "the fair, moral and principled thing for the president to do is show Pollard clemency."

Since Pollard is said to be regarded as a hero in Israel, Israel's absorption minister, Yuli Edelstein, initiated a letter to Clinton on Pollard's behalf meant to be signed by both Labor and Likud leaders. Labor Party leader Ehud Barak declined to sign the letter, thus injecting the Pollard issue into Israeli electoral politics and prompting Edelstein to "call upon the leader of the Labor Party to change his position and to affix his signature, and to show that he is not abandoning a soldier in the battlefield."

So, after twice before rejecting clemency for Pollard, once in 1993 and again in 1996, Clinton again is being blackmailed. Release of Pollard would be wildly unpopular in the U.S., prompting the resignation of CIA Director George Tenet and perhaps other administration appointees. But keeping Pollard in jail might have unforeseen consequences in terms of the media support Clinton relies on, and perhaps even in terms of a revelation from Netanyahu of a possible secret Clinton commitment at Wye which remains unfulfilled.

Lama Habal is programs manager for the Council for the National Interest.