Bush Trip Revives Israeli Push for Pardon of Spy

Esther Pollard's husband, Jonathan Pollard, is serving a life term for passing on U.S. secrets.
Esther Pollard's husband, Jonathan Pollard, is serving a life term for passing on U.S. secrets. (By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)
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By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

JERUSALEM -- A balding, bearded visage loomed over President Bush's visit here last week, peering down from banners and from posters on buses barreling along quiet streets. The face was that of Jonathan Pollard, an American who pleaded guilty in 1986 to passing top-secret information to Israel.

Israeli supporters seeking his release were rebuffed by President Bill Clinton during the last period of extended negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Now they are ramping up their campaign for a presidential pardon.

"The political situation finally seems to favor freeing him," said Pollard's wife, Esther, a native of Canada who married him after he entered prison -- he is serving a life sentence -- and now lives in Jerusalem.

Pollard was on the unofficial agenda throughout Bush's visit. The case "came up" during day-long meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev, who declined to provide further details.

Israel's deputy prime minister handed Bush letters from Esther Pollard and from a rabbi who heads a prominent religious party. And Bush's dinner companions included cabinet minister Rafi Eitan, Pollard's former spy handler and unindicted co-conspirator who is barred from traveling to the United States. Israeli news reports later quoted Eitan as saying there was "a chance" Pollard would soon be freed.

The White House has given no such indication. "There are no plans to change his status," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. But with Israel sure to raise the issue again during the ongoing U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians, Pollard's supporters and some outside analysts say circumstances may favor a compromise. Bush may need to reward Israel for making concessions to the Palestinians, the theory goes, and many officials on whose watch Pollard spied are long-retired or dead.

"It is not hard to see a scenario in which Bush is pushing Olmert's government for more and more, and Olmert is under pressure to deliver something, and looking so weak that the government might fall because he is giving up too much. Then Bush can strengthen him by offering Pollard," said Avi Ben-Zvi, a University of Haifa political science professor and specialist on U.S.-Israeli relations.

Such a decision would surely infuriate the U.S. intelligence establishment, which in the past has spoken out strongly against a pardon. While Israel has never officially disclosed what it got from Pollard, who worked in naval intelligence, he is thought to have provided tens of thousands of pages of documents, much of the material highly sensitive. After years of denials, Israel in 1998 acknowledged that Pollard had been its agent.

That same year, during a summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders held at Wye River, Md., Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu asked Clinton to pardon Pollard. Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet then threatened to resign, according to an account of the period in his book, "At the Center of the Storm," and Clinton turned down Netanyahu, who was furious because he thought he had a deal.

Through a spokesman, Tenet declined to comment for this article. Other published accounts of the period indicate that pardoning Pollard was very much on the table. In his book "Missing Peace," U.S. negotiator Dennis Ross wrote that he had advised Clinton to hold off on pardoning Pollard until negotiations on the final status of the Palestinian territories. "You will need it later, don't use it now," he recalled telling Clinton.

Intelligence experts said that although the names atop the intelligence agencies have changed since 1998, deep animosity toward Pollard remains. "For the rank and file, it remains a serious sore point," said the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedell, who spent 29 years at the CIA and served as a negotiator at Wye River.

Asked about Bush pardoning Pollard, Riedell said that in 2001 Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made a request similar to Netanyahu's "and was told in no uncertain terms that this president would not interfere" in the case.

In the meantime, Pollard has remained a cause celebre here, perceived in some quarters as a Jewish patriot whose spying was intended to strengthen Israel, an American ally, rather than weaken the United States. Israel granted him citizenship in 1998.

Pollard's former lawyer, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who favors a full pardon, said that Bush has other options.

"Commuting the sentence to 25 years in prison is a very realistic option," Dershowitz said, adding that Pollard had been told when he agreed to plead guilty to espionage that the government would not seek a life sentence. "Since he's asking a lot from Olmert in terms of concessions, Bush could help the government keep that promise it made and broke, by making the sentence a term of years."

Esther Pollard said her husband's health has deteriorated in prison, which has included seven years in solitary confinement, and that he should be allowed to live out his years in Israel. "If anyone cares about justice, this should be done," she said. "I am optimistic."

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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