Reporting from Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest foray into Israeli-Palestinian peace making indicates that the United States may release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard as a “sweetener” for Israel to continue the process beyond Kerry’s April deadline. If this is the case, it would be a decision driven by American diplomatic desperation—a decision very far removed from Kerry’s brilliantly-crafted diplomacy thus far. Perhaps this “hail Mary” maneuver is the only thing left before the talks collapse, or perhaps it is driven by domestic political calculations related to midterm elections. Whatever the real motivations, the Secretary of State should just say ‘no’.
Proponents of releasing Pollard marshal arguments that on the surface appear appealing. He has served 29 years thus far of a life sentence—more than others convicted of seemingly-similar offenses. He is eligible for parole in 2015, so, the argument goes, why not get some diplomatic “value”—however small—for him now?
Furthermore, it is argued that Pollard is highly unlikely to have any information that would put American interests at risk. Pollard’s sentence was harsh because then-Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger reportedly wrote a detailed memo to the judge in the trial detailing the dangers of allowing Pollard to be set free early given what he knew. But that was in the mid-1980’s; such information today would probably be worthless.
Some also argue that Pollard is ill, and thus release should be considered on humanitarian grounds. Others who are less favorably-disposed to him argue that he should be released because only when he is out of prison will Pollard reveal himself as the venal, small-minded, money-hungry, treasonous person who sold out his country.
The arguments against releasing Pollard now, or ever, are at least as compelling. First, Israelis are likely to fête him as a returning hero, which will be terribly annoying to Americans and will exacerbate a rift that is already widening between American and Israeli leaders. Two recent examples of the divide: Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s unacceptable comments about America, and the fact that Israel did not vote in the United Nations in favor of an American resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
More substantively, Pollard did indeed sell out his country. Although he claimed he provided intelligence to Israel that was being withheld by the United States, the fact is he provided such information in return for money. And, according to reports at the time, he also sold American secrets to other countries. According to the reports of Weinberger’s intervention in the sentencing portion of Pollard’s trial, the information provided actually put American agents in the field in jeopardy and may have cost some their lives.
Less well-known is the hurt that Pollard inflicted on loyal American Jews working in public service and in security-sensitive positions in the private sector. Some Jews were immediately taken off of sensitive projects or activities involving Israel, and for many, Pollard’s arrest cast a pall of suspicion over them. Even today, some American Jews with relatives in Israel or who have spent time there as students or tourists do not receive security clearances for which they otherwise would be eligible.
But most to the point in the current round of diplomacy, it is wrongheaded for the United States to be asked to pay any price, let alone this price, for the peace process to continue. Israel agreed to release Palestinian prisoners as part of an understanding last summer, and thus Israel should be expected to live up to those commitments without further sweeteners and concessions. Naturally, Palestinians should be expected to fulfill their part of the understandings as well. If these commitments are fulfilled, and if Kerry is still unable to persuade the two sides to continue engaging until the terms of reference for serious negotiations can be arranged, then so be it—even the release of a convicted spy will not induce Israel to yield territory or allow a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, nor will it induce Palestinians to yield on their demand for a ‘right of return’ of refugees.
A serious peace process is all about agency, that is, decisions that can and must be made by the leaders of Israel and Palestine. The United States can only do so much to assist, and John Kerry has gone way beyond the call of duty in trying to help. He should not be tempted to demean American diplomacy and tarnish his hard work by throwing a convicted spy into a half-baked deal only to buy time for a peace process that appears to be floundering anyway.