President Obama: Free Jonathan Pollard.

With John Kerry in Jerusalem, Jonathan Pollard’s Israeli supporters have found an opportunity to bring their case before the American government: campaigning for the release of jailed Israeli-American spy Jonathan Pollard planned to mark his 10,000th day in U.S. prison on Monday by holding a vigil outside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Jerusalem hotel.

… The movement to see Pollard pardoned has gained increasing support among both Israeli and American Jewish leaders and officials.

I will freely admit that I’ve long been of the opinion that if you do the crime, you should probably be willing to do the time, and in Pollard’s case, this has meant a life in prison as a result of breaking his country’s laws regarding a little thing known as espionage. Which, you know, is kind of a big deal. Not to mention that Pollard broke his plea bargain commitment to avoid press hoopla at the sentencing stage, and not to further mention that the entire case provides fodder for those who would unjustly accuse American Jews of dual loyalty. Dude, how you gonna do that to your people?

Yet lately I’ve begun to come around to the notion of granting Pollard clemency—though I will also admit that my change of heart is not entirely altruistic.

As Lawrence Korb (Assistant Secretary of Defense under Clinton) recently told reporters: Pollard has now served 28 years for crimes that typically receive a seven-year sentence. There’s a difference between spying for an enemy (à la Aldrich Ames or Robert Hanssen), and spying for an ally, and Jonathan Pollard wasn’t exactly the first hyphenated American to spy for a friendly foreign government. Moreover, Korb noted, “Jonathan did not provide anything to the Israelis that would compromise American security.”

Then there’s the fact that Pollard was held in solitary confinement for seven of those 28 years, plus the fact he’s up for mandatory parole in November 2015.

First of all, I cannot in good conscience dismiss the importance and impact of those years of solitary confinement, and given sentencing precedents, I’m pretty well convinced that simple fairness suggests Pollard could reasonably be released at this point. He wasn’t exactly passing documents to the Soviets, and not to put too fine a point on it, but: Nobody died.

Then there’s this other thing, the point at which my thinking grows decidedly less altruistic: President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are giving every impression of wanting to produce a breakthrough on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Whether they’ll succeed is an entirely different matter, but as Obama’s trip last month proved—starting with the fact of the trip itself, all the way through to the last-minute phone call to Turkey—diplomacy is, more often than not, advanced by the pulling of levers far away from the problem at hand.

I don’t like Jonathan Pollard, and I think what he did was pretty indefensible. He’s not on my Fantasy Seder  list.

But to be perfectly blunt: Israel’s right wants him released, there’s no compelling reason not to release him, an argument can be made for clemency, and he’ll be up for parole in two and a half years anyway—and bringing Pollard home to Israel would be a public relations coup for Netanyahu. If he has Obama to thank for it, another lever is pulled (plus—bonus! America’s institutional Jewish leaders have one less thing to complain about).

I realize that I’m essentially suggesting using Jonathan Pollard as a bargaining chip, and as long as I’m admitting things, I’ll admit that I’m not at all comfortable with the idea. People are people and deserve to be treated with human dignity, regardless of their legal status.

But given the circumstances, and given my conviction that there are some pretty good reasons to let the man go, I’ll make my peace with that discomfort. Especially if pulling that lever might help move us closer to a genuine and secure peace for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

And that’s the question, really: Would clemency for Jonathan Pollard, a traitor who managed to also make life harder for his own community, actually help bring a two-state solution closer? If so, Mr. President, I say: Release him, and let Israel celebrate as much as they want.

But make sure you’ve got a solid deal in your pocket first. As an Israeli, I can assure you: My other government’s promises aren’t worth a lot more than Pollard’s loyalty.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.


  1. As you pointed out, he IS up for parole (albeit in another 2 years but still).

    Thing is, doesn’t matter if you’re spying for an enemy or spying for an ally, you’re compromising your nation’s security. One of the big threats is tricking people to spy under a “false flag” i.e. getting them to reveal secrets to an “ally” that’s actually been compromised or falsified. Pollard may have been spying for Israel, but what if his “chain of handlers” were compromised to the Soviets or Chinese or Other?

    And I’m also of the opinion that a friendly nations would not spy on an ally: if Israel or the UK or France or Jamaica wants info out of the U.S. they are well within their right to ASK US. And I would expect the same out of our intelligence community… (yes, I am aware I am trying to speak well of the CIA/NSA/FBI. I’m trying, that’s the point)

    • I agree w/ you on all of these points, not least the whole “but you’re our friends, why are you spying on us again?” piece of it.

      But at this point, he’s actually done his time, and if his release could prove useful…?

  2. Thanks for a careful and well-reasoned essay on this. I’m not really sympathetic to Pollard, but there’s little point in holding him for two more years, especially when there’s a way to make him useful in getting something larger accomplished.

    • My big concern is that nothing would actually come of it – Israel hasn’t exactly been aces at keeping its promises and/or at not poking the US in the eye.

      • Tenar Darell

         /  April 11, 2013

        Yeah, you’ve convinced me it might be worth it, but Netanyahu has not got a good track record for keeping his promises. I really am tired recently with the President negotiating with himself, I don’t know if I could take another round of faux settlement freezes on top.

  3. When I saw the title, I thought, “Oh no, et tu, Emily?” But by the end I found myself reluctantly agreeing, albeit reluctantly. Well done!

  1. Jonathan Pollard | Library Grape
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