The administration must be desperate to keep the Mideast “peace talks” going. Another diplomatic failure — or rather a diplomatic wild goose chase exposed — now would only add to the sense that President Obama has lost control of international events. (The administration may also rightly fear that the Palestinian Authority again will seek full statehood at the United Nations.) So it seems the administration has thrown the issue of Jonathan Pollard into the mix, most likely to sweeten the deal for Israel to release of prisoners and maybe even undertake yet another settlement freeze, as a desperate move to keep the talks from ending abruptly. This is a bad idea, although I agree (and have previously written) Pollard may have been treated with disproportionate severity and may deserve a commutation of his sentence.
Former deputy national Elliott Abrams explains:
I’m not enthusiastic about the linkage to the “peace process,” for several reasons.
First, if as I believe he ought to be released now, that decision should be made on grounds of justice and humanitarian treatment and not dependent on extraneous factors.
Second, isn’t it a bit odd—or repellent—to say that we will release an Israeli spy if Israel will release some murderers? I do not believe we should be pressuring Israel to release convicted terrorists, because we don’t do that ourselves. What’s the moral basis, anyway, for pressuring Israel to release convicted killers?
Third, this sets a very bad precedent. We’ve released spies over the years when their terms were legally up, or to exchange for people we badly wanted released from foreign prisons—usually Americans jailed for spying. Now we are going to release someone who spied on America in order to free foreign terrorists? The most you can say for this move is that we would achieve a political goal, which in this case is to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks going. But linking such releases to political goals is a dangerous precedent. Where does it stop? What are the limiting principles?
Fourth, what are we getting for this release of a spy? We are keeping PLO Chairman and Palestinian President Abbas at the negotiating table for a while, maybe a year. Nice. What happens next year? This situation exists only because of Secretary Kerry’s inexplicable confidence in his own ability to get the “peace process” moving. He plunged in, saying the goal was a peace treaty. That goal was unreachable, so he climbed down to the goal of a “framework agreement.” That was unreachable, so he climbed down to just keeping Abbas at the table. That was unreachable without more Israeli prisoner releases, so now Kerry wants to trade Pollard for those releases. What will he want next year when Abbas threatens to leave the table again?
I would add another factor: It is bad for Israeli-U.S. relations and will undermine efforts to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. To say Pollard’s release would be controversial in Congress would be an understatement. While I don’t agree, I am sympathetic to those who say he spied and should remain in jail, in large part as an example to other would-be spies. If he is released, a good number of otherwise pro-Israel lawmakers will be angered and dismayed. This is not a time for a rupture between Congress and the Jewish state; it’s a relationship that, in light of the hostile relationship between the White House and Israeli government, is essential to both countries’ well-being. (In fact this is only coming up now because the president is so desperate to avoid failure on a process most knowledgeable observers agree is a fruitless. Yet it is Israel that will take the blame from opponents of Pollard’s release. I’ll give the president the benefit of the doubt that he is not trying to create ill-will against Israel, but that probably will be the result.)
To undertake an act that will seem to many to hurt U.S. security so the Israeli prime minister can defend his right flank would be an unnecessary and potentially harmful disruption in congressional efforts to keep the administration on track with regard to Iran. If and when the interim talks fail, Congress will need to act with one voice in devising the next steps to protect U.S. and Israeli security.
And, in light of the Edward Snowden matter, it is not the time to start letting spies out of jail. The president should be doing everything possible to impress upon Congress and the public the national security damage that can be done by theft of national secrets. There is real message confusion in letting Pollard go now.
To be blunt, Pollard isn’t worth all this. At some other time for purely humanitarian reasons the president should reconsider the case. But not now and not for a strategic objective that is virtually meaningless and will only exacerbate tensions between the United States and Israel.
UPDATE: News reports indicate that the talks have faltered and the meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Mahmoud Abbas have faltered. Apparently dangling the Pollard release was insufficient to revive the moribund talks.