By Lawrence J. Korb
Almost 30 years after he pleaded guilty to providing classified information to Israel, Jonathan Pollard might be catching a break from President Barack Obama. According to many a trial balloon floated in the U.S. and Israeli press Monday, the White House is considering releasing the convicted spy with the aim-improbable, critics say-of salvaging Middle East peace talks that seem to be on the verge of implosion.
The critics have a point. Pollard’s case has little to do with making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Releasing him would indeed be a Hail Mary pass-a true desperation move. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Pollard’s release is a key Israeli goal and a longtime personal crusade for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been trying to persuade the United States to spring him for more than a decade. As a private citizen, Netanyahu even visited Pollard in prison in 2002, calling him an “especially intelligent man.” Pollard’s freedom is something Israel badly wants, and may give up other goals to secure.
At immediate issue is the release of the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners, as promised at the outset of these peace talks. Many of these men have been convicted of serious crimes, including the murder of Israelis, and Netanyahu now appears to be having second thoughts. If he reneges and refuses to release these prisoners, Mahmood Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has vowed not continue any peace talks beyond the current April 29 deadline for a framework agreement. If, on the other hand, the Israeli prime minister does release them, his fragile coalition government could collapse. Freeing Pollard would give Bibi a huge victory and give him political cover to keep the talks going.
That might not seem like much, but it would also cost Obama little. Pollard’s continued imprisonment is not very important to the United States, even though his freedom is very important to Israel. He’s a chip the United States can afford to cash in, for several reasons.
For one thing, Pollard should never have been given a life sentence in the first place. In return for his guilty plea, which spared the United States from the embarrassment of a protracted and costly trial, the government agreed not to seek a life sentence before going back on the deal. As Judge Steven Williams, a Reagan appointee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noted in his dissent to Pollard’s 1991 appeal, this was “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Pollard has already been imprisoned for nearly three decades and would be eligible for early release in November 2015. His sentence and time served are both far longer than others who have spied for U.S. allies. Releasing him now, in exchange for firm Israeli commitments that would advance the peace process, a core U.S. interest, is a good bargain.
Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.