A recent series of public statements and letters has landed the campaign for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard its greatest achievement in 25 years: a powerful bipartisan roster demanding clemency for Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel and sentenced to a life term.
Two former senior officials with Republican administrations — George Shultz, who served as secretary of state under President Reagan, and Michael Mukasey, George W. Bush’s attorney general — have sent letters to President Obama calling for Pollard’s release, thus providing the campaign to free Pollard with the conservative credentials it was previously lacking.
Similar appeals were made by Democratic lawmakers and by rabbis from all streams of Judaism. Additionally, on January 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued the first-ever public call for Pollard’s release by an Israeli leader.
The test of this evolving surge will ultimately be its ability to influence Obama to set Pollard free, a move that is still viewed as unpopular with the intelligence community. The mainstream support for clemency, however, could provide Obama with the political cover to overcome this opposition.
“The prospects have never been better for the release of Jonathan in the year 2011,” said Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a longtime advocate of Pollard’s release.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu’s speech in the Knesset symbolized a new phase for the Pollard case. “I know that the United States is a country based on fairness, justice and mercy. For all these reasons, I respectfully ask that you favorably consider this request for clemency. The people of Israel will be eternally grateful,” Netanyahu said, quoting his letter to Obama
The request is not new. It was raised in private meetings by several previous Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu himself during an earlier stint as prime minister. In 1998, Netanyahu tried to tie Pollard’s release to his signing of the Wye River accords with the Palestinians. The CIA’s adamant opposition moved President Clinton to back off his initial openness to the bid.
Netanyahu’s recent public statement and open letter to Obama helped galvanize the new momentum behind the call for clemency. His letter to Obama also set in motion a process that will oblige the United States to formally reply to the request. So far, the administration would say only that Netanyahu’s letter has been received and will be reviewed by the Justice Department.
Speculation is abundant on the timing and motivation behind Netanyahu’s decision to issue his call. But most analysts in the Israeli media believe he was moved by an emotional appeal that Pollard’s wife made to him during a meeting last December. In issuing his call, Netanyahu also tapped into a broad Israeli consensus on this matter.
Behind the scenes, there has also been a flurry of activity that can be credited, to a great extent, to two unlikely partners: Lawrence Korb, a retired Navy captain who served as assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, and David Nyer, an enthusiastic young Orthodox Jew from New York.
Korb, currently a scholar with the liberal-oriented Center for American Progress, first voiced his opinion on the case 20 years ago, arguing in an article that the severity of Pollard’s punishment did not fit his crime. Last September, Korb returned to the issue. He wrote a letter to Obama calling for Pollard’s release, and later joined Pollard’s wife, Esther, in Israel for a series of public appearances culminating in her meeting with Netanyahu, which Korb also joined.
Korb told the Forward he believes that opposition to Pollard’s release is waning, due to the fact that Pollard has already served 25 years in prison. “People are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” Korb said, adding that “many of those who served in the intelligence community at the time of the Pollard case are no longer there.”
Nyer’s work, unlike Korb’s, is mostly behind the scenes. Nyer, 25, is a social worker by day and an active volunteer on the Pollard case in his spare time. Despite his dearth of experience and lack of affiliation with any group, Nyer is viewed by many as the driving force behind the November 18 congressional letter signed by 39 Democratic House members. After successfully lobbying Congress, Nyer worked to gather signatures for another letter to Obama, signed by rabbis and Christian leaders totaling 500. He was also instrumental in reaching out to former administration officials who were asked to voice their support for the cause. Another idea that Nyer had was to reach out to Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, whom Obama considers a mentor and friend. The effort led to another letter, written to the president by his former professor.
“The idea was to show the widespread support from the conservative right to the liberal Democrats,” Nyer said of his work.
The crowning achievement of all these efforts was the letter written by former secretary of state Shultz on January 11. “Jonathan Pollard has paid a huge price for his espionage on behalf of Israel and should be released from prison,” Shultz wrote in his short missive, which quotes other former officials who have called for Pollard’s release. Shultz, 90, was a senior member of the administration at the time of Pollard’s arrest and is presumably aware of the extent of damage done by the Israeli spy’s activities.
Another significant letter came from Mukasey, who is Jewish. Musakey also relied in his letter on statements by Korb, by former CIA director James Woolsey and by former Republican senator Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, all supporting Pollard’s release. He wrote that as attorney general, he had reviewed many cases in which a life sentence was imposed. “Pollard’s offense is in no way comparable to those cases,” he wrote.
Asked by the Forward why he decided to speak out now, Mukasey said: “It was the first opportunity for me to make my voice heard. I couldn’t do so when I was on the bench and later when I served as attorney general, but now I was happy to do so.”
Getting conservative figures on board was always a challenge for the campaign to free Pollard. The recent congressional letter, headlined by liberal Democrat Barney Frank, had no Republican co-signers. Republican lawmakers have spoken in private conversations of their concern about defying the defense establishment and of their belief in tough punitive measures for serious crimes.
Conservative pundit Erick Erickson, who runs the website Redstate, argued in a recent post that Shultz and Mukasey’s statements should not be viewed as a sign of change on the right.
“There are few conservatives within the actual conservative movement who are paying attention,” Erickson wrote, “but the bulk of those who are do not want Pollard released. They want him hanged or shot as a traitor to his country.”
Support for Pollard’s release has been consolidating in the Jewish world, as well. The major organizations were long reluctant to take on the issue, fearing allegations of dual loyalty. But they have gradually become more supportive of the call for clemency.
The Presidents Conference and the National Council of Young Israel were early backers. But the slate of Jewish organizations represented in a January 3 letter to Obama included leaders of all Jewish denominations, alongside hundreds of rabbis from across the nation.
Even the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which stood out in the past in its opposition to Pollard’s release, is moderating its stance. A statement that the group released last September suggested that if a parole board decided to release the Israeli spy, “we would be okay with that.” The group stressed, however, that it opposes Pollard’s release if it comes in return for Israeli concessions or if it in any way effaces “the criminality of what he did.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.