What America Taught Israel Through Jonathan Pollard

Decision to keep convicted spy in prison for a full 30 years had nothing to do with anti-Israel attitudes.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Protesters call for the release of Jonathan Pollard in Jerusalem, 2014.
Protesters call for the release of Jonathan Pollard in Jerusalem, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

According to those who applaud the lunacy of using Jonathan Pollard to spy on the Pentagon (or to be more precise, its naval branch) for Israel’s sake, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should seize the opportunity next time he is invited to the White House to draw his host’s attention to a chirping bird outside the Oval Office window and then, when U.S. President Barack Obama’s head is turned, pull out a secret recording device and plant it under the table. Why not? After all, all means are kosher to obtain intelligence for Israel.

In announcing the parole board’s decision to release Pollard, as expected, after 30 years in jail, and not one day sooner, the Americans taught the Israelis a lesson: There are no double discounts, and there ought to be no dual loyalty. To steal and also to receive a gift? Not from us.

Reward and punishment, rights and obligations; that was the law for President Richard Nixon and former CIA director John Deutch and former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger – the latter two, senior Clinton Administration officials, were caught committing minor security offenses. And that’s also the law for Pollard and his recruiters and handlers and contact people in Israel.

It’s not because they’re anti-Israel

This isn’t anti-Israel; it’s pro-American. Respect him (with a slap) and suspect him, so that others will be deterred from playing similar games. Uncle Sam might seem like a gangling old man, but he won’t let any young whippersnapper rifle through his papers, not even his brazen nephew with the skullcap and the “Chai” necklace.

At first, it was truly unbelievable: a Jew working for U.S. Naval Intelligence on the payroll of Israeli intelligence. That’s why Charles Wolfson, producer of CBS’ nightly news broadcast, sought to confirm the news his reporter at the Justice Department brought him with two or three acquaintances in the Israeli media who were stationed in Washington. And that’s how the Israeli public learned about the Pollard affair. But the damage didn’t end there, thanks to the sins of commission and omission by the government and the intelligence agencies.

The technology has changed. What Pollard did via his library card – involving months of taking out documents he wasn’t authorized to take, then transferring them once every two weeks to the car of an employee of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Bureau of Scientific Relations at a car wash on Connecticut Avenue, whence they were taken to a copy machine in an apartment rented by a collaborator, Harold Katz – can now be done by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning or Edward Snowden just by pushing a button. But the rules haven’t changed: If you break them, you pay.

Way back when Ronald Reagan was president – when Pollard first offered his services to the Defense Ministry and was recruited and deployed – a high-level decision was made to spare the high ranking officials. The Americans knew that Israeli defense ministers Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Rabin, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Levy, Israel Air Force commander Amos Lapidot and Military Intelligence director Ehud Barak were all in on the secret of Pollard’s spying, even if they didn’t necessarily know his name or what job he held. The Americans also suspected that prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres didn’t learn of the case from the newspapers.

Punishing the small fry

Nevertheless, they decided to punish only the lower-level culprits: Rafi Eitan, head of the Bureau of Scientific Relations; air force Col. Aviam Sela; and scientific attaches from the Israeli embassy in Washington and the consulate in New York. They showed air force officers, who were upset by Sela’s blocked promotion to brigadier general and commander of the Tel Nof air base, that in cases like this, the official who makes the decision isn’t Rabin, but U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

Thus deterrence was achieved, albeit not from the whims of the Israeli voter, who later elected Rafi Eitan – then head of the Pensioners Party – to the Knesset and assured him a cabinet post. And now the question is whether Pollard, like Eitan, will follow the precedent set by Natan Sharansky (and, in a very different context, Aryeh Deri) and go from prisoner to minister.

This is hardly inconceivable. If Pollard is allowed to move to Israel, a bidding war will open over which party can guarantee the settlers’ idol a place on its slate for the next Knesset. Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu would all welcome this free agent whose name has become a brand – a positive one in their eyes, even if it’s a negative one in the eyes of others. Next year in the rebuilt Sa-Nur.

Thus the loud, argumentative and stupid battle for Pollard’s release – which never had any real chance of succeeding, since it relied on the political calculations of presidents and prime ministers and was blocked by the opposition of senior legal and defense officials – will now presumably move to the arena of the Law of Return and an Israeli passport. But Israel will lose this battle, too, even if Pollard doesn’t have to agree to certain restrictions on his movement and speech as a parolee.

But it’s also quite possible that this battle won’t be waged at all, based on the precedents of Robert Soblen and Meir Lansky – two people on the lam from American law enforcement agencies whose hopes of finding refuge in Israel were dashed. In his statement expressing joy and relief at his upcoming release, Pollard was careful not to say anything about going to Israel. He said he hoped to be united with his wife Esther, but didn’t say where.

And for Pollard, ultimately, it’s better that way. He’ll get the millions of dollars Eitan promised to deposit in his Swiss bank account – $30,000 a year, in 1985 dollars, with compound interest and linkage to inflation, plus a bonus for being in jail. He’d be better off taking this money to some comfortable town in Florida and not coming here. Because after the initial celebration and his recruitment into politics, he’d have to deal with harassment by the press and the Finance Ministry about his pension.

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