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World Citizen: A Secret Trade for an Israeli Settlement Freeze

Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010

Efforts to save the newly revived peace process between Israelis and Palestinians have moved into a feverish phase with only days left before an Arab League summit that could declare the process dead.

The negotiations, sponsored by the Obama administration, are on life support just weeks after their birth. Palestinian negotiators refused to continue talks with Israel unless the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to extend a moratorium on Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, which expired on Sept. 26. Netanyahu's right-wing coalition strongly disliked the original 10-month freeze, and it would likely oppose another extension -- unless the conditions for one make it impossible for them to walk out of the government. Netanyahu was warned that his government could fall if he renews the freeze.

That's where a creative new plan comes in, introducing a totally unrelated, but emotionally charged element into the negotiations: the case of Jonathan Pollard.

Pollard, a former civilian analyst with the U.S. Navy, is serving a life sentence in an American prison, convicted of spying for Israel by handing over classified materials. Troubling new revelations about the events surrounding his conviction and sentencing have added renewed passion to efforts by Pollard's supporters to obtain his freedom, at precisely the time when Washington might leverage his release to secure other policy objectives.

The case has stirred controversy since Pollard's original arrest in November 1985. In Israel, it became a cause célèbre and never left the headlines. Now, some who argue that his punishment was far out of proportion to his crime see an opportunity to achieve a number of goals, including a return of Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.

The idea is that if the U.S. offered to release Pollard in exchange for an extension of the settlement freeze, Netanyahu's coalition partners and the settlers' movement would find it impossible to reject the deal.

A spokesman for Netanyahu vehemently denied a report by Israeli Army Radio claiming that Israeli officials have been pushing for such a deal. Yuli Edelstein, minister of public diplomacy and diaspora affairs, called the report "cheap spin," insisting that "There is no such proposal and never was."

And yet, the campaign for Pollard's release is quickly gathering steam as the impending 25th anniversary of his arrest coincides with a crisis in the push for peace.

Four U.S. congressmen are circulating a letter urging President Barack Obama to commute Pollard's sentence. The letter, signed by Reps. Barney Frank, Anthony Weiner, Bill Pascrell and Edolphus Towns, argues that such a release would serve the twin U.S. foreign policy goals of strengthening relations with Israel and aiding the peace process. Israelis, they write, would see Pollard's release as "further affirmation of the strong commitment the U.S. has to the ties between us." Alluding obliquely to a settlement freeze decision, they conclude that the gesture "could be especially useful at a time when [difficult decisions] are being made."

Separately from the peace process, the argument for freeing Pollard gained strength when a former top Pentagon official said Pollard's harsh sentence was the result of "an almost visceral dislike of Israel" by then-Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.

A few weeks ago, Lawrence Korb, a highly regarded assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, sent a letter to Obama urging him to right what Korb saw as a grave injustice perpetrated by the U.S. against Pollard. "Based on the knowledge that I have first hand," wrote Korb, "I can confidently say that the punishment was so severe because of lack of sympathy for Israel by the U.S. secretary of defense at the time, my boss, Caspar Weinberger." Among a number of detailed arguments, Korb highlighted a point that has also been emphasized by Pollard's advocates over the years: The average penalty for the offense Pollard committed is just two to four years. Korb's conclusion: "Justice will be done if the sentence is shortened to what has already been run to date."

When the judge sentenced Pollard to life in prison, he imposed a sentence even greater than the prosecutor had requested. Pollard had agreed to cooperate in exchange for leniency. As part of the plea agreement, the prosecutor asked the judge for "only a substantial number of years in prison." But Weinberger sent a letter to the judge claiming that Pollard had inflicted grave damage on the U.S. The judge ignored the plea agreement and imposed the harsher sentence, along with a five-year term for Pollard's wife Anne. Pollard became the only person ever sentenced to life in prison for spying for an American ally.

Weinberger later retracted his claim that Pollard's crime had hurt the U.S. gravely. In a 2002 interview, he said, "The Pollard matter was comparatively minor. It was made far bigger than its actual importance."

The sense that an injustice was done has been intensified in Israel by revelations made by Rafi Eitan, Pollard's Israeli intelligence handler and later a cabinet minister, who accused the U.S. of reneging on both the written plea agreement and a verbal pledge that Pollard would be freed after serving 10 years. Eitan maintains that some of the spying blamed on Pollard was later discovered to have been perpetrated by Aldrich Ames, a CIA official convicted of spying for the Soviets in 1994. Ames' espionage is believed to have resulted in the deaths of about a dozen American agents. He, too, received a life sentence.

Pollard's spying, in contrast, aimed mostly at fortifying Israeli intelligence, rather than weakening America. In a 1987 Washington Post article, a young Wolf Blitzer provided a detailed list of the types of information passed by Pollard to Israeli intelligence. The material included reconnaissance of Palestinian (PLO) headquarters in Tunisia, information on Iraqi and Syrian chemical warfare capabilities, U.S. intelligence assessments of PLO planned operations, and Soviet arms shipments to Syria and other Arab states.

Ironically, a deal to free Pollard in exchange for a settlement freeze might be rejected by Pollard himself, were he in a position to do so. In 2006, when there was talk that he would be freed in exchange for Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader serving time in Israel on multiple murder convictions, Pollard's lawyers said he would oppose the deal.

And yet, only days ago Pollard's attorneys filed an official request for clemency, asking Obama to commute their client's sentence to time served.

If Obama decides to free Pollard now, it is highly unlikely that the release would come with an official announcement of a quid pro quo. Washington would not say it has freed Pollard in exchange for a settlement freeze and a return to negotiations. That argument would be made quietly, in Jerusalem, to Netanyahu's right-wing coalition partners, who would then find it difficult to tell their constituents -- and their consciences -- that they stood in the way of freedom for a man they consider a Jewish patriot.

Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.

Photo: A sign posted in Israel that reads "We want Polard home" (Photo by Wikimedia user Tamra Mishtamash).