Don't Hug Pollard When He Lands

Should the convicted spy Jonathan Pollard be freed, Israelis would do better than give him a hero's welcome.

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A free Pollard protest.
A free Pollard protest. Credit: Baubau

The irony that back in the 1980s was called in Israel Parashat Pollard – the Pollard Affair – just keeps growing. Irony upon irony. Now, as his release may be drawing near as part of the weirdest prisoner exchange in a region that has already seen some very lopsided deals, both the Israeli and the American governments seem to be repeating the same mistakes.

Pollard was a spy and a traitor but never a very important one. His value to Israel and the damage he allegedly caused the country of his birth have since been outweighed a hundred times over by the damage it caused the open and hidden relationships between the two countries. This damage itself has long ago been mitigated by the fact that most responsible Israelis and Americans know they have much more important things to do than dwell over this dismal but passing chapter. Whatever lingering ill-feeling still exists is mainly harbored by a handful of veterans who long ago left the intelligence community.

There have been massive campaigns of misinformation from both sides ever since Pollard's treachery to his homeland was revealed and they are still ongoing. His Israeli defenders have created entire myths of huge swathes of crucial information the Americans were hiding and of the brave Jewish patriot providing necessary intelligence for Israel to carry out vital operations such as the 1981 raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq (though he wasn't even working for Israel then). On the other side, some American intelligence veterans have concocted wild theories of how the crown jewels were purloined by Pollard and then somehow found their way to the KGB. Neither narrative is factual; the truth, like so often in spy stories, is much less exciting. Pollard was a muddled young man who should never have been allowed by his U.S. Navy employers to have access to classified information. His motives were incoherent and not totally ideological. He was paid for his services and Israel may not have been his only customer. Whatever he passed on was useful but Israel would have survived without it and if anything did reach the KGB, it hardly helped the Soviet Union, which disintegrated a few years later, leaving the U.S. – the dominant world-power – to win the arms and intelligence race.

Allies spy on each other. We didn't need dubious sources such as WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden to tell us that. To assume otherwise is both naive and stupid. No two countries, as united as they may be over many aims, share interests entirely and spying is often a useful alternative to diplomacy in reassuring each side that the ally isn't getting up to too much mischief behind their backs. And no: No country shares all its intelligence with its allies, not even the fabled "five eyes" alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

But there are some red-lines, especially when the alliance is unequal, and Israel and the U.S. could never be on an equal footing. Recruiting (or accepting the offer of service from) an American citizen employed by the U.S. intelligence community, and a Jew at that, was a criminally reckless decision, one that should have disqualified the man in charge of the operation, Rafi Eitan, from ever occupying a position of responsibility again (of course, he eventually went into politics and became a minister). The fact that Pollard's recruitment was eventually excused and Eitan rehabilitated is testament to the fundamental strength of America's support for Israel (which should have been the main reason for not using Pollard in the first place) and the unique Israeli psychosis which sees any action taken in the interests of national security, no matter how damaging, as excusable since every operation and every perceived threat is "existential."

Ultimately, the only person who has suffered in a major way is Pollard himself. Neither side is arriving at the present juncture with clean hands. His prolonged incarceration is vindictive – the man is physically ill, mentally unstable and has served a longer sentence than many other spies who served America's real enemies much more efficiently. But Pollard's would-be supporters have also let him down by making his release a public, diplomatic and political issue. The only justification for setting the poor man free is humanitarian.

How ironic, therefore, that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, frantic to save the Israeli-Palestinian talks while trying to attend to the Ukrainian crisis and maintain precarious negotiations with Iran, has played into the hands of the Pollard lobby in Israel, grasping at this straw in the hope that it will grant a stay of execution to the diplomatic process that is about to be taken off life-support.

And what a wonderful irony that Pollard himself apparently doesn't want to be part of a prisoner exchange with the Palestinians (not that anyone is asking him of course). Over the years in solitary confinement – his only visitors far-right Israeli politicians and settler rabbis – he has adopted an extreme outlook, calling in 2009 on the government not to carry out a prisoner exchange for captured IDF Sergeant Gilad Shalit but instead to "take the list of prisoners Hamas requested and kill one of them every day until they release Gilad."

But the most beautiful irony of all is that now those very far-right politicians who have been noisily calling for Pollard's release (and harming his case) will be forced to swallow the release of 400 Palestinian prisoners, a de-facto freeze on settlement building and the extension of talks over a two-state solution they abominate, just so "Yonatan can come home for Pesach."

No-one should begrudge Pollard his freedom. He has paid a heavy price for the mistakes he and others made three decades ago. Neither can anyone blame him for the awful views he developed over 27 years of confinement. But let's not rush to hug him as he steps off the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport. There will be enough crazies there as it is. A national carnival around the liberated spy will cause new damage to the relationship with Washington. That will pass anyway; just as the stupid insults of Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon are a passing irritation. We shouldn't accord Pollard a hero's welcome because there was nothing heroic about the way in which Israelis abetted an act of betrayal by an American, a betrayal of a country that has done more than any other for the Jews and continues to do for the Jewish state.

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