The festive atmosphere that was visible in the Israeli media this week at the news that the last restrictions on the freedom of the spy Jonathan Pollard have been removed, pushed to the side the true circumstances of the affair.
Netanyahu spoke to Pollard by phone as though he were the prodigal son about to return home, but the great majority of former defense establishment personnel who were involved in the case know the truth: Pollard, as Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Rom noted this week, spied in return for money and initially offered his services to other countries.
To some of those involved, the Pollard circus recalled an episode, which is known only in part, from the Wye River Conference in 1998. The Israelis and the Palestinians convened at a convention center in Wye River, Maryland, in order to discuss a further stage of IDF withdrawal in the territories, as part of the Oslo Accords (to which Netanyahu, in his first term as prime minister, was still committed).
Along with a planned evacuation of 13 percent of the West Bank, Israel was also about to commit to the release of Palestinian prisoners. Aides to the prime minister suggested that Israel demand the early release of Pollard, who was arrested by the Americans in 1985, with the aim of softening the response of the Israeli right wing to the agreement. President Bill Clinton expressed readiness in principle, but encountered fierce resistance from his intelligence chiefs.
During the conference, a four-way night meeting was held between Clinton, Netanyahu, CIA director George Tenet and the prime minister’s military secretary, Brig. Gen. (res.) Shimon Shapira. Tenet stated that Pollard would be released only over his dead body, added that all his colleagues shared his view and threatened to resign.
The next morning, Netanyahu met with his entourage, which included ministers Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Mordechai and Natan Sharansky. Two of those who took part in the consultation told Haaretz on Thursday that Netanyahu, and the ministers as well, were ready to walk out of the conference over the dispute with the Americans.
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The turning point came when Shapira warned Netanyahu: “If you don’t sign, we will return home and a violent confrontation is liable to erupt in the territories. Let’s say one IDF soldier will die in those disturbances. How will you be able to look their mother in the eyes and tell her that it was justified because of Pollard?”
The prime minister recalculated and signed the agreement. Pollard had to wait another 17 years for his release and five more years for the last restrictions to be lifted.
The Wye River Memorandum, by the way, was never fully implemented. Israel implemented one partial pullback of the three planned stages. But then the sides started to accuse each other of violating the agreement and its implementation was halted.
The eruption about which Shapira warned occurred two years later, in September 2000, and was known as the second intifada. It began after the failure of another peace conference, this time with the participation of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, at Camp David.