Along with Ames and Hanssen, Jonathan Pollard is in his own very special category of treason.
Having sworn an oath to the United States, Pollard betrayed that trust with energetic glee. In return, Israel ensured that the American intelligence officer was handsomely rewarded for his crimes. Pollard’s efforts continued without hesitation, until the day he was finally caught, in 1985.
Since then, pursuing Pollard’s release from prison has been a unifying cause for Israeli society. In tune with public sentiment, successive Israeli governments have spent many years petitioning successive American presidents to “do the right thing.” Those presidents have always said no. But now, it seems, that might change.
First, let’s be clear about something. The U.S.-Israeli alliance is a necessity for both nations. In the same vein, the pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal is a noble ambition worthy of serious effort. That being said, Pollard is a specific issue between the United States and Israel — fundamentally removed from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And that’s not all. Assume for a second that Pollard was released. Do we seriously believe that this would help win a peace deal? That somehow it would encourage Netanyahu’s coalition partners to support his peace efforts?
Give me a break. In fact, just listen to Naftali Bennett — a key coalition partner in the Israeli government. Bennett mocks the very notion of the peace process. Or how about Avigdor Lieberman (another coalition partner)? Lieberman, Israel’s foreign secretary, rarely talks about peace. Instead, he likes to obsess over the status of Arab Israelis. Indeed, even senior members of Netanyahu’s own party are overtly hostile to the peace overtures promoted by Secretary of State John Kerry.
And then there’s the cartoonish gamesmanship of the Palestinian leadership. Instead of seeking consensus, President Mahmoud Abbas has been celebrating his denial of the most undeniable of all the negotiating givens — the fact that any final-status agreement will, by Israel’s existential necessity, have to recognize the existence of the Jewish state as a Jewish nation.
It’s in this sad situation that we have a good perspective on what Pollard’s release would bring: in short, nothing.
Sure, Netanyahu’s partners would probably stop criticizing the peace process for a month or so, but behind the scenes, nothing would change. Similarly, in the West Bank, Abbas would continue in that worst of Palestinian negotiating traditions — playing the populist rather than taking risks.
Still, it would be a grave mistake to consider Pollard’s situation simply through the lens of the Israeli–Palestinian peace process. There’s much more at stake here. At a defining level, Pollard’s release would broadcast a terrible signal about the responsibility of the U.S. government.
For a start, were Obama to accept Netanyahu’s request, the Israeli government would be rewarded for its espionage against the United States. Yes, allies spy on each other — it’s a reality of the world. Nevertheless, allies are supposed to avoid getting caught spying on one another. And, like the NSA in Europe, Israel did get caught. To make matters worse, Pollard’s Israeli handler was, for all intents and purposes, an Israeli NOC — in other words, an intelligence officer acting outside of diplomatic cover and specifically attempting to steal secrets from the United States.
But it’s not simply a question of history and justice. After all, what message would Pollard’s release send to the men and women of Israel’s talented intelligence services? Sensing American flexibility in the face of counterintelligence imperatives, the officers of “the Institute” would find new inspiration for their collection efforts. Who could blame them?
On the flip side, think about the signal that Pollard’s release would send to the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community. That’s a critical concern.
In the end, Pollard didn’t only betray the U.S. Navy personnel who served alongside him. Instead, he betrayed the very essence of intelligence service — protecting secrets in order to protect one’s country. Alongside the latest CIA witch hunt by Senate Democrats, which seeks to slander Langley as a sadistic torture house, Obama’s releasing Pollard would tell a demoralizing story: “Serve your country with courage and we’ll abandon you as soon as the political winds change. Betray your country, and one day we’ll release you as a dove of peace.”
This gets to the heart of the matter. Jonathan Pollard betrayed his country, endangered his fellow citizens, and did so without regret.
For once, I sincerely hope that President Obama listens to his vice president.