While negotiating the terms to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to secure convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard’s freedom. Netanyahu asked for his release when the United States insisted that as part of the preconditions to begin negotiations, Israel would have to release a large number of Palestinians prisoners convicted of murder and terrorism against Israelis. The prisoner release will be put to a vote at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting. Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon released a letter on Saturday, July 27, 2013 urging the ministers to vote against the release and to remember “Pollard” in doing so.
On Monday, July 22, 2013, Israel’s Channel 2 news first reported that Netanyahu had requested from United States Secretary of State John Kerry that if U.S. President Barack Obama release Pollard, 58 and commute his sentence to time served, it would be far easier for Netanyahu to get his cabinet to vote in favor of releasing the 82 prisoners the U.S. originally wanted Israel to release as a precondition in restarting peace talks with the Palestinians. A Netanyahu aide confirmed the request replying; “We routinely raise the issue with American officials.” The Prime Minister Minister’s office officially stated they have “consistently brought up the issue of Jonathan Pollard’s release in his meetings with senior American officials.” Netanyahu wanted to demonstrate to Israeli citizens that the government was getting at least one concession for the sacrifice of releasing known terrorists and murderers.
Israel has to release Palestinians prisoners as a condition for the talks to proceed. The prisoners will primarily consist of “heavyweight prisoners” convicted of terrorist attacks and murders of Israelis prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords. The number of prisoners considered all week for release was 82, but on Saturday, the Palestinians threatened not to come to the inaugural negotiation meeting set for Tuesday, July 30, 2013 in Washington, D.C. without 24 Israeli-Arabs being included to the release list. The total will now be 104 prisoners that will be released.
They will be released in increments as the talks progress; four times, six to eight weeks apart with Netanyahu determining the exact dates. The cabinet will be voting Sunday to approve in general the prisoner release. The list of the prisoners’ names has already been released in advance for families of the victims to be allowed to protest in the High Court of Justice. Early reports stated Israel will be releasing 350 prisoners; however, the official number is down to 104 prisoners.
Most of Netanyahu’s coalition cabinet opposes any prisoner release; Two deputy ministers Danny Danon from Likud and Avi Wortzman from Bayit Yehudi are mounting a campaign to convince cabinet ministers to vote against the prisoner release; Wortzman called it “dangerous and senseless,” while Danon called the prisoner release “lunacy.” Deputy Defense Minister Danon also released a letter on Saturday urging cabinet members to vote against the measure and concluded by reminding them of Jonathan Pollard; “One more word, which should also evoke some thoughts on the subject, in your mind: Pollard.”
The same sentiment is shared by the Israeli public. A poll of Israeli Jews’ opinion of the release of Palestinian prisoners to initiate peace talks Wednesday by New Wave Research showed that 85 percent oppose their release, 9.4% approve with 5.7% undecided. Additionally a smaller majority of Israeli Jews still would not want the prisoners released even after talks resumed; 78.1% oppose any release, 13.7% support it, while 8.2% are undecided.
Pollard is serving a lifetime sentence for stealing United States defense intelligence documents and then giving them to Israel. Pollard was a navy intelligence analyst, who amassed documents relating to the U.S. policies and activities in Arab countries while working for the American government, and then passed them to the Israeli government. He was convicted for conspiracy relating to those activities from May 1984 to Nov. 1985, when he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to the charges in 1987, and is serving his time in a North Carolina prison.
Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1998, and admitted to his working on behalf of the Israeli government one year later. He has already served 28 years, and is eligible for parole in Nov. 2015. However, recently Pollard has been hospitalized numerous times for illness related to kidney and gall bladder issues.
Pollard has been against being released as part of a prisoner exchange that would release terrorists and murderers. When requested for Pollard’s release the Obama administration has repeatedly stated “our position has not changed.” The only thing Obama would promise was that Pollard would receive a fair parole hearing.
The Israeli government has lobbied numerous times for Pollard’s release, most recently in March when Obama made his first official trip to Israel. Both Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke with Obama about freeing Pollard. Netanyahu requested clemency stating in a preview to the Israeli public; “It has already been raised countless times by myself and others, and the times has come for him to go free” While Peres previewed his request when speaking to a group of high school students proclaiming “As president, I pardon prisoners on a humanitarian basis. [Pollard has] been in prison long enough.”
Netanyahu has been requesting the American government to release Pollard since 1998 during his first term as prime minister. Netanyahu made his request to then President Bill Clinton’s administration prior to the Wye River Accord signing, however CIA chief George Tenet threatened that if Pollard was released he would leave his post, prompting a definite refusal from the Clinton Administration.
The Committee for Pollard’s Freedom responded to Netanyahu’s most recent release request through a statement; “Dozens of top American officials have called for Pollard’s immediate release due to the values of justice and mercy. Jonathan did not murder anyone. His 28 years of service, including seven in solitary confinement, is an unprecedented sentence for the crime, so he should be released immediately without conditioning it on anything else.”
In a sharp contrast to the complete lack of support in releasing Palestinian prisoners, there is wide support among members of the Knesset and Israelis for Pollard’s release with petitions amassing numerous signatures calling for his freedom.
Pollard’s release is supported across party lines and political leanings, last Sunday, MKs were advocating for Pollard to be released as part of the peace negotiations preconditions. Moshe Feiglin, a Likud Party MK from Netanyahu’s right leaning party stated “If launching the negotiations is such an interest to the Americans, how can it be that we are releasing terrorist murderers, and they are not releasing our agent who has been sitting in jail for more than 27 years?” MK Uri Ariel, the Construction and Housing Minister from the right leaning Bayit Yehudi Party finds the U.S’s refusal incredulous, especially since what they are asking of Israel; “What is going on in the minds of Americans when they insist on keeping Jonathan Pollard in prison and demand that Israel free terrorists? It really is amazing.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum left leaning Labor Party MK Nachman Shai, the co-chairman of the Knesset’s Free Pollard Caucus stated that; “This is the best time in the world to call upon the Americans to release Pollard as a gesture for the beginning of negotiations. Pollard should be the American gift to Israelis, and they can do it. It’s a window of opportunity for goodwill to Israelis, who are not going through an easy time. It would build up public support for negotiations and show that the US also understands the gravity of this historic moment.”
However, many MKs do not believe that a prisoner swap is necessary, and think the U.S. should just release Pollard since he has already served so long in prison, feeling the punishment does not fit the crime. Labor MK Avishay Braverman expressed; “He has served so much longer than others who committed similar crimes that the time has come to free him now, without connection to anything – except justice.”
Last Friday, July 19, 2013, United States Secretary of State John Kerry announced from Amman, Jordan that the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority agreed to sit down together for peace talks in Washington, DC. This is the first time talks will have resumed in three years since they stalled in 2010 over West Bank Jewish settlement construction.
Palestinians have been demanding as a precondition that the talks would be based on the pre-1967 Six-Day War borders would take away from Israel Jerusalem’s old city, the Golan Heights and the West Bank, and that there would be a settlement construction freeze in Israeli settlements that are located beyond the bounds of the 1967 borders, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel has demanded at a minimum level that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish State.
The United States and the Palestinians are asking a lot of Israel requesting that they release over 100 danger criminals convicted for terrorism and murder potentially causing a national security risk to innocent Israelis, however, the U.S. consistently refuses the release a single prisoner convicted of a non-physically violent crime, which is ill and has already served nearly 30 years in prison. Hopefully, the resumption of peace talks will not continue to be a series of one side concessions that Israel will be forced to make in the name of peace.
Justice for Jonathan Pollard
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.