JERUSALEM — The two issues with perhaps the broadest consensus and resonance in Israeli politics are opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and support for the release of Jonathan J. Pollard, the convicted Israeli spy, from a North Carolina prison. Now the two could be tied together, as some in Washington appear to be highlighting Mr. Pollard’s likely parole in November in hopes of quieting the vigorous campaign by Israel and some of its American supporters against congressional approval of the deal.
But while Mr. Pollard has been long bandied about as a potential diplomatic chit the United States might use to force Israeli concessions, analysts said Saturday that such a linkage had little chance of working now, and could instead provoke a backlash.
Iran is seen as too serious a threat for the kind of horse-trading suggested in previous proposals to free Mr. Pollard in exchange for compromise on the Palestinian front, they said. Mr. Pollard has long been expected to get out this year in any case, having served the required 30 years of a life sentence, so efforts to portray his release as a grand gesture are already being described as cynical, cheap and misguided.
“If this is the motive, it’s naïve,” said Amnon Rubinstein, a law professor at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, who joined the growing movement calling for Mr. Pollard’s release in recent years. “The two things are totally separate. One is a human consideration, and one is a strategic issue, which most Israelis, including myself, regard as existential.”
Jonathan J. Pollard
Karl Deblaker / Associated Press
Aaron David Miller, a State Department veteran on Middle East affairs who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said any such move would look bad for President Obama, given that Americans remain in Iranian prisons. And he added that it would probably make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel “fight harder” against the Iran deal “so he’s not thought to have colluded.”
“Pollard is apples and the Iran deal is oranges,” Mr. Miller said. “The Pollard card is not just of limited value, but potentially damaging.”
A spokesman for the National Security Council said Friday, “There is absolutely zero linkage between Mr. Pollard’s status and foreign policy considerations,” denying a report in The Wall Street Journal that American officials were pressing for his release in part to allay Israel’s anger over the nuclear accord. But while Obama administration officials have previously emphasized that they expect Mr. Pollard to serve out his term, on Friday a Justice Department spokesman punctuated that sentiment with the caveat, “which in this case is a 30-year sentence as mandated by statute.”
That spin may be aimed not at Israel but at Democratic — and Jewish — lawmakers like Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who has long lobbied for Mr. Pollard’s release and could be among the pivotal votes in Congress on Iran. Even if it does not change either the substance or the tenor of criticism of the nuclear deal, freeing Mr. Pollard would at least remove one item from the lengthy list of complaints about Mr. Obama by Israelis and their backers.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation, said Saturday that the government had not “been told anything at all” about developments regarding Mr. Pollard, and that he did not think it had been discussed as part of a so-called compensation package Washington might provide to appease Israel on the Iran front.
“Our longstanding position has been, we have made repeated requests over the years, that for humanitarian reasons he should be released,” the official said. “It comes up routinely. I’m not aware that the issues are in any way connected.”
Mr. Pollard, 60 and ailing, was born in Texas to a Zionist family, and shortly after being hired in 1979 as a naval intelligence analyst, started passing suitcases stuffed with classified documents to an Israeli handler, who paid him $1,500 a month, bought his wife a diamond and sapphire ring, and sent the couple on expensive European vacations.
He was disavowed by Israelis upon his 1985 arrest, but later embraced — he was granted citizenship in 1995 and, by 2013, had become the focal point of a protest movement that went beyond the original right-wing core to become a coalition of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, retired generals, celebrated authors and dovish politicians like Shimon Peres, then the president of Israel. An online petition demanding clemency drew 175,000 signatures.
Mr. Netanyahu has made the fight against Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon the centerpiece of his career, but the Pollard case could be a close second.
In 1998, Mr. Netanyahu nearly secured Mr. Pollard’s release during a summit meeting with President Bill Clinton regarding the Palestinians at Wye Mills, Md., but it was scuppered when George J. Tenet, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, threatened to resign.
Mr. Netanyahu’s aides in 2010 floated to the Obama administration the idea of trading Mr. Pollard’s freedom for an extension of a 10-month freeze on construction in West Bank settlements. And last year, Secretary of State John Kerry persuaded Mr. Obama to put Mr. Pollard on the table as part of a package to save Mr. Kerry’s collapsing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, but the negotiations fell apart for other reasons.
“It is clear that since the 1990s he’s been a chip, he’s been a playing card,” said Michael B. Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, who visited Mr. Pollard in prison in 2011 and writes about him in his new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.” “It’s become sort of built into the peace process.”
In Washington, debates about how to maximize Mr. Pollard’s leverage have raged; in 2014, for example, many thought freeing him only to extend the talks, rather than to move Israel on the core issues of conflict with the Palestinians, would be a mistake. As the clock ticks toward the 30th anniversary of his arrest — at the time, parole was generally mandated after 30 years for federal inmates serving life sentences — the value inevitably drops.
Amir Oren, a journalist who has covered the case from its first day, said Israelis would “pocket this gesture; they will not even agree that it’s a gesture, they will say it’s a make-believe gesture because he was going to be released anyway.” Mr. Oren, who wrote an article published online June 27 in the left-leaning Haaretz noting the coming parole date, said the more pressing question was what restrictions Mr. Pollard might face upon his release, including whether he would be allowed to emigrate to Israel.
Mr. Pollard’s ex-wife, Anne, said on Israeli television Saturday night that he would want to live in Israel, and that Mr. Netanyahu should give him money to hire a “top-notch attorney.” She did not directly respond when asked whether there was a connection between his release and the Iran deal, but said, “There is no doubt in my mind that from the beginning, we’ve been a political case.” With the 30-year mark approaching, Mr. Pollard “deserves to be released based on the American system of justice.”
“I just want to see him out,” she added. “I can’t bear it anymore that he sat and lost all of his life in jail.”
Oded Eran, a longtime Israeli diplomat who is now a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the anonymous reports coming out of Washington are “a cheap shot to try and change the tone on Iran, and therefore we are not going to be swayed one way or the other.” Mr. Eran, who served in Israel’s embassy in Washington, said Mr. Pollard’s release would be a 24-hour story of national celebration, while the Iran issue “will be with us for months, if not years.”
“I want to be very clear and very categorical,” he added. “If anyone in Washington believes that this is going to change the tone of the debate on Iran, the nature of the debate on Iran, the votes on Iran, he is absolutely, categorically, misleading himself.”
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(via NY Times)