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Israel Should Refrain From Public Calls to Free Jonathan Pollard

Just as the end purpose of Pollard's handlers - obtaining intelligence - did not justify the means, unacceptable means cannot be used to obtain his release.

On Monday, under pressure from Jonathan Pollard's wife and activists campaigning for his release, President Shimon Peres asked U.S. President Barack Obama to free the convicted spy, who is serving a life term for spying against the United States on Israel's behalf.

In a personal letter, Peres focused on two reasons why Obama should show clemency: Pollard's deteriorating health - the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has confirmed that he has been hospitalized at a prison medical center since April 4 - and the 26 years that have passed since his arrest, outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., in November 1985. Peres' missive was intended for publication, and thus also received a public - and negative - response from the White House.

Jonathan Pollard (AP)

The implication is that the United States believes that every nation, including Israel, has the right to treat its traitors as it sees fit, and that Pollard's incarceration is an internal matter that is out of bounds to foreign meddling.

So concludes another in a long series of Israeli missteps in the Pollard affair, starting with the decision to recruit, for pay, a Jew working in U.S. naval intelligence, in a manner that brought to light the questions of Israel's conduct toward its greatest benefactor and the "dual loyalty" of American Jews; continuing with Israel's clumsy denials after Pollard's arrest and efforts to save him from prison - as if he were Gilad Shalit, in Hamas captivity, or Natan Sharansky in the Soviet gulag. When it comes to the reality test, so popular with Israeli leaders, the balance is negative: Pollard's supporters are in the headlines, and he is behind bars.

Israeli prime ministers, from Peres - who was in office when Pollard was recruited and arrested - to Netanyahu, have the right to set target dates for obtaining Pollard's release, in the context of the responsibility of intelligence agencies to their assets. This responsibility exists despite the fact that the handling of Pollard in Washington constituted criminal negligence in both theory and practice, to which Pollard himself contributed, and inflicted profound damage to Israel. But just as the end purpose of Pollard's handlers - obtaining intelligence - did not justify the means, unacceptable means cannot be used to obtain his release. Humility will do more than arrogance.

Practical efforts on Pollard's behalf must focus on working to set the sentence to the usual and expected - but not yet signed off by the U.S. authorities - 30 year limit on life sentences in the United States, that would be implemented only after the next Knesset election in order to prevent Israeli politicians from taking credit for Pollard's release. But above all - quietly, behind the scenes, not in public.