“Free Jonathan Pollard?” At what price?

Obama should tell Netenyahu, “Let’s make a deal.”

It appears that Benjamin Netenyahu intends to ask Barack Obama for the release of Jonathan Pollard. Since the PM has given the President nothing but tsuris since he took office, I don’t see that Obama owes him any favors. This isn’t a matter of “What have you done for me lately?”; it’s more like “What have you ever done for me?”

So, in Obama’s shoes, I’d be purely transactional. Since Pollard seems to be a big deal in Israel, I’d ask for something large. And since Bibi’s word notoriously isn’t worth the spit behind it, I wouldn’t trade for mere promises. My first impulse would be to say that Pollard’s release is available as part of a completed (not merely signed) peace deal, and not otherwise. In the words of the Clancy Brothers song, “When Ireland gets her freedom, bhoy, you’ll get your motor car.”

On the question of what would be the right thing to do with respect to Pollard as an individual, I’d tend to say “Let him out,” in keeping with my general view that multi-decade prison terms are mostly unjustified. Surely there’s no policy argument for keeping Pollard behind bars any longer: twenty-five years is plenty for deterrence, and at this distance in time Pollard surely doesn’t have any more secrets to divulge. So my tentative opinion is that his continued confinement is pointless cruelty.

On the other hand, it’s not as if Pollard hadn’t earned some hard time. He sold vital secrets for money, and apparently not only to Israel: South Africa was another client, and allegedly he tried to peddle his wares to Pakistan as well, in addition to feeding information to his then-wife to help her in business. He’s in a medium-security prison, so his physical conditions of confinement aren’t intolerable. So if he spends a few more years locked up as a pawn in US-Israel diplomacy, I don’t think you could really call that “injustice.” (He gets out in 2015 in any case.)

It turns out there’s a joker in the Pollard deck, one that the newspapers mostly don’t talk about: the unremitting hostility to the idea of letting him out on the part of Jews in the national-security establishment. After all, if Pollard claims that it was his moral obligation as a Jew – a “racial imperative” – to sell out (legitimately) classified material, including details about communications intelligence, that puts into question the reliability of every Jewish citizen. He’s the original Shande für de Goyim: a Jew whose bad behavior casts discredit on other Jews among non-Jews.

Anyway, if the Israeli government wants to insist on the principle of not being too hard on people who release classified information, maybe it could let up on Mordechai Vanuatu, who at least acted on (twisted) principle rather than for cash. He’s no longer in prison, but it wouldn’t really damage Israeli national security to let him leave the country, as he wants to do. Like Pollard, he’s no hero – he acted not out of disapproval of nuclear proliferation, but out of hatred for the existence of Israel as a state – but that was a long time ago. And, unlike Pollard, the information he revealed was embarrassing – Israel had done a good job of keeping its acquisition of nuclear weapons secret – but not actually security-threatening. As with Pollard, there comes a time to say “Genug iz genug!”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

10 thoughts on ““Free Jonathan Pollard?” At what price?”

  1. I would imagine the only reason Israel wants Pollard is to find out what kind of classified information he still has tucked away inside his brain. It's obvious he didn't do it because of any loyalty.

  2. Mark,

    1. "Bibi’s word notoriously isn’t worth the spit behind it." Maybe this is true; and maybe it's justified. Or maybe not. Specific examples?

    2. In regard to the issue of trustworthiness unfortunately it's our government which ended up having to put commitments in writing — which it then couldn't actually get itself to do; what does that mean about Secretary Clinton's word? — in part because it, first, denied the existence of, and then explicitly reneged on, written commitments by the previous administration regarding settlements.

    3. Frankly if this push were just coming in private from the Israeli government and its secret services I'd find that entirely unexceptionable and I'd be more inclined to think we should agree. The fact that it's a big deal politically there shows something of a misunderstanding about how American Jews would feel about this. The last thing we need is for Pollard to receive a hero's welcome at Ben Gurion.

    4. If you think Vanunu wouldn't be used (willingly) in a PR campaign against Israel you're being exceptionally naive this morning.

  3. "If you think Vanunu wouldn’t be used (willingly) in a PR campaign against Israel"

    You mean a DOCUMENTARY campaign focussing on the fact that Israel (UNLIKE Iran) has real working nuclear weapons, many of them — AND willingly engaged in proliferation (South Africa).

    Yeah, I can see why those who maintain a delusional attitude towards Israel might be worried about publicizing these facts.

  4. 1) I see people must be spending the day with their families – I'd expect a post on this topic to have the comment thread hip-deep in flying monkeys by now.

    2) Is "Vanuatu" a spellcheck "correction", a misremembering, an attempt to hide from the flying monkeys who patrol the internets, or a witticism that quite eludes me?

  5. I don't know Jonathan Pollard, but I know somebody who went to high school with him. According to my friend, Pollard wasn't particularly mercenary. He was just a yutz with a fairly high IQ. AFAIK, nobody in the Israeli Establishment wants him in Israel. Who needs a conspicuous fool who is likely to embarrass you so he can get more attention? It's pressure from the Israeli right wing that forces Netanyahu to pretend to want Pollard.

  6. What's the point of having nuclear weapons if no one knows you have them? On that basis Vanunu would have done Israel a good turn. I've heard that the US puts pressure on Israel to keep him penned up to avoid having him air an implication of the US for providing Israel instructions for building the bombs.

  7. Vanunu revealed a secret nuclear program by a rogue state, which stole materials from the US, and gave nuclear weapons technology to another rogue state. This would justify – nay, **mandate** the shocking-and-aweing of any other country, so why not Israel?

  8. This is the kind of decontextualized reasoning that leads to thinking like, "The U.S. (or Israel, or France, etc.) has nuclear weapons so North Korea (or Iran… or Venezuela… or whatever dingdong despotism you're thinking of) has a right to them too." Rights are a good category for thinking about individuals; nations, not so much. The reason why no one worries very much about Israel's nuclear weapons is that everyone understands they're not crazy; they have these weapons to counter existential threats, not to incessantly threaten their neighbors with them. Even the Arabs don't really care about them that much — you don't see Egypt or Saudi Arabia worrying about Israel's bomb. On the other hand, everyone, including the Arabs, worries about Iran getting nuclear weapons.

    In other words, Israel's nuclear weapons only concern you if you feel negatively about Israel in the first place, they're not actually something that motivates people to feel negatively about Israel. Whereas, for example, most of us might not have terribly positive feelings North Korea but we'd probably not think about them very much at all if they weren't building nukes and missiles. I'm sure Barry doesn't.

  9. "[T]wenty-five years is plenty for deterrence … So my tentative opinion is that his continued confinement is pointless cruelty."

    I don't see why 25 years is "plenty" for deterrence. At the very least it is not obvious why imprisonment for espionage past 25 years is so absurd as to constitute pointless cruelty. Unlike most other criminals, persons who commit espionage do so with a great deal of forethought. The possibility that of release after some period of confinement, with the prospect of being hailed as a hero by those who benefitted from the espionage, may well be a risk many potential spies find worth taking.

    My own view is that it is unfortunate that a plea agreement was reached with Pollard. He should have been executed.

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