Washington — A combination of timing, diplomatic considerations and, above all, good old-fashioned noodging has culminated in the biggest push in years to free Jonathan Pollard.
Insiders associated with the push, which resulted in mid-November in a congressional letter to President Obama asking for clemency for the American Jew convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel, say the main factor was one man: David Nyer, an Orthodox activist from Monsey, N.Y.
Nyer, working under the auspices of the National Council of Young Israel and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, repeatedly called dozens of congressional offices and pressed Jewish groups asking for a leader to take on the case of Pollard, the former U.S. Navy analyst who has spent 25 years in prison, part of a life sentence, the longest ever for spying for an ally.
Congressional staffers described Nyer as “relentless,” and he eventually struck gold: Massachusetts Democratic congressman Barney Frank, who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Banking Committee, agreed to sign on. That prompted a total of 39 signatures, all by Democrats, on the letter sent to Obama.
Getting Frank was a coup, one congressional insider said, not only because he has a leadership position, but also because his pronounced liberalism in other arenas adds credibility to an effort that has been identified in recent years with the Israeli and pro-Israel right.
Frank took up the cause because he long has believed that Pollard’s life sentence was disproportionate to the crime, his spokesman said.
Launching the initiative at a Capitol Hill news conference on November 18, Frank listed two factors that made the matter timely: Pollard’s 25 years in prison and the parlous state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“The justification of this is the humanitarian one and the notion that the American justice system should be a fair one,” Frank said. “We believe that clemency after 25 years for the offenses of Jonathan Pollard would do that.
“My own hope is that if the president would do this, it would contribute to the political climate within the democracy of Israel and would enhance the peace process.”
Frank alluded to Obama’s low popularity in Israel where, fairly or not, the president has been saddled with a reputation of being cool to Israeli interests.
“There are clearly people in Israel who are concerned about the nature of the American-Israeli relationship,” Frank said. “An affirmation of that relationship would go forward” to alleviating such concern.
Frank was joined at the news conference by Steve Rothman and Bill Pascrell, both congressmen representing New Jersey, and Anthony Weiner of New York. Pascrell met with Pollard in 1998 at Butner, the federal facility in North Carolina where he is imprisoned. Another initiator of the letter was Representative Edolphus Towns of New York.
The letter’s emphasis is on what it says is the disproportionate length of Pollard’s sentence.
“We believe that there has been a great disparity from the standpoint of justice between the amount of time Mr. Pollard has served and the time that has been served — or not served at all — by many others who were found guilty of similar activity on behalf of nations that, like Israel, are not adversarial to us,” the letter says. “It is indisputable in our view that the nearly 25 years that Mr. Pollard has served stands as a sufficient time from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence.”
It also emphasizes that Pollard is guilty.
“Such an exercise of the clemency power would not in any way imply doubt about his guilt, nor cast any aspersions on the process by which he was convicted,” the letter says.
The absence of Republicans on the letter was striking.
Frank said he had reached out to Republicans and had delayed sending the letter until after the elections in order not to make it a political issue. Speaking on background, Jewish organizational officials — some of them allied with the most conservative groups — confirmed that was the case. Pro-Israel figures in some cases called the Republicans and said failure to sign would stain otherwise spotless pro-Israel records, but that didn’t help.
Two congressional Republicans known to have been on Nyer’s call list did not return calls to JTA seeking comment.
Nyer said he had secured the endorsement of conservative figures known for their closeness to the party, including Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, and John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel. Hagee had reached out to Republicans, Nyer said, but to no avail.
Among the Jewish groups backing the effort were the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the National Council of Young Israel, B’nai B’rith International, the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, the Zionist Organization of America, Agudath Israel of America and the Rabbinical Council of America. Other mainstream groups stayed out — a signal of how sensitive the matter of a Jew spying for Israel remains.