Don’t get the Israelis wrong on Jonathan Pollard and his reportedly imminent release. Not only do they eagerly await the opportunity to welcome him as a hero, they remain angry that this homecoming has not yet taken place. That’s why the trial balloon floated by administration officials on Friday was taken as an “insult” by many Israelis, who see the deal with Iran as a betrayal. It won’t shut them up about the danger of the Iran agreement, either:
Israel reacted with cautious optimism Sunday to the news that the spy Jonathan Pollard might be released on parole from a U.S. prison in November after serving 30 years of a life sentence. But Israeli leaders stressed that Pollard’s freedom would not derail their plans to vigorously oppose the Iran nuclear deal. …
An Israeli member of parliament, Nachman Shai, chairman of the Knesset caucus for Pollard’s release, said that it would be an insult to link the Iran deal to Pollard’s future.
“After 30 years, Pollard has to be released. That is the maximum period,” Shai said. “No other prisoner has served in a U.S. prison for such a long period for a similar crime.
“They did not treat him well and they took it up to the worst point, so to say that this is a gesture from the American side to soften the Iran deal is an insult, and that is the least I can say,” he said.
Both the Obama administration and Benjamin Netanyahu’s office insist that there has been “zero linkage” between the Iran deal and Pollard. Not everyone’s buying that, especially with the recent leak from the White House, and its recent history of using Pollard as a bargaining chip:
Columnist Ronen Bergman in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth wrote that it was hard to see the timing of Pollard’s release “as a mere coincidence.” He called Pollard “a consolation prize” for the Iran deal.
Bergman and other Israeli political commentators noted that U.S. and Israeli diplomats discussed releasing Pollard as a way to bring Israel back to the negotiating table after talks with the Palestinians collapsed this past year.
Of course, the parole hearing date in November is just that — a hearing, not a firm release date. It will be the first time that Pollard has been able to argue for release to the parole board, which may or may not be inclined to grant it. A great deal of that judgment will rely on whether the federal government backs release or continued detention on his life sentence.
So what will they say? The Israelis argue that Pollard’s done more time for the charge to which he pled guilty than anyone else, but the US intelligence community argues that Pollard wasn’t just a spy for Israel, either. Investigators found evidence that he had passed secrets to South Africa as well as Israel, tried to work with Pakistan and maybe Iran too, and that his primary motivation was money, not loyalty to Israel. He exposed a key NSA system (RAISIN) that went beyond the intel-sharing agreement with Israel on which Pollard has rested his public-relations defense ever since. However, those allegations were not part of the plea deal, and the parole board may decide not to consider those issues … or the federal government could choose not to bring them up at all.
Again, the man who will get the biggest boost from a Pollard release will be Netanyahu. He came under fire for the worsening US-Israeli relationship during Obama’s term, but the Iran deal and the broad consensus of disaster among Israelis has to have vindicated the PM’s approach with Israeli voters, at least to some extent. If Netanyahu welcomes Pollard to Israel in a few months, he’ll get a popular boost from that while still openly defying the White House on Iran. If for no other reason than that, Israelis had better not count on the party starting this November.
Update: Rumsfeld’s not a fan of releasing Pollard either:
— Donald Rumsfeld (@RumsfeldOffice) July 27, 2015