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 fÃ¼r 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!”