The Obama administration’s decision to put the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard back on the Middle East negotiating table is not without precedent. President Bill Clinton – the third of five presidents under whom Pollard has been imprisoned – floated the commutation of his sentence as a bargaining chip during a round of negotiations in 1998.
But that offer was scuttled when his CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard’s life sentence, handed down after he admitted to spying on the United States for the Israeli government, was reduced.
Freeing Pollard remains controversial in many quarters. Those involved in the Pollard case, including his former prosecutor Joseph diGenova, expressed their dismay at the idea this week.
And Vice President Biden was quoted in 2011 telling the New York Times that he informed Obama at the time when the president was considering clemency for Pollard, “Over my dead body are we going to let him out before his time. If it were up to me, he would stay in jail for life.”
Now that the Obama administration is dangling Pollard as an enticement for more negotiations, observers are drawing parallels to Clinton’s efforts to hammer out a Mideast peace deal at the Wye River, Md., summit in 1998, and some advisers who were at those negotiations are recommending that Obama not offer Pollard in any bargain.
Aaron David Miller, an expert who advised Democratic and Republican administrations for decades, noted that the Obama administration is floating Pollard as an effort to just keep Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the negotiating table – not to seal a deal on a long-term agreement.
“Pollard will not buy the president or (Secretary of State John) Kerry the space and time necessary to see this process to fruition unless something fundamentally changes the minds of Abbas and Netanyahu, and Pollard’s release is not going to do that,” Miller said.
Dennis Ross, Clinton’s chief negotiator who advised him to hold off on Pollard’s release – and who saw Tenet almost resign over it – told the New York Times today that opposition within the U.S. intelligence community would still be negative, if perhaps “less vehement.”
Miller noted that even as Clinton floated Pollard’s freedom, the United States was able to reach an agreement on territory exchanges — which was the administration’s goal in that round of talks — without taking action on the U.S.-born spy.
“We got the deal at Wye without Pollard. That only validates this is a tactic without a strategy,” Miller said.
The president’s spokesperson Jay Carney said today that Obama had not made up his mind on whether to release Pollard.