Pollard parole will do nothing to improve US-Israel ties, experts say

The convicted spy may be a big fish, but his release falls well short of making up for what Israelis see as the enormity of the Iran deal disaster

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2012 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2012 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)

As euphoria drifted through the halls of power in Jerusalem following the news that Jonathan Pollard would be granted parole from prison, some cautioned that the convicted Israeli spy’s freedom would do little to change Israel’s friction-laden relationship with the US.

“It won’t influence the relations one bit,” former defense minister Moshe Arens told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

Pollard’s release is viewed by some as a bid by Washington to assuage Israel after the signing of a nuclear accord with Iran, though the Obama administration has strenuously denied any connection.

Even if Pollard’s release was meant as a salve, it would be a fool’s errand.

The tensions between the US administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are rooted in various fundamental policy disagreements, chief among them the nuclear deal with Iran, and whatever happens to Pollard will not be able to bridge them, several experts on bilateral ties said.

“The nuclear deal with Iran is so important for Israel, in that it touches on existential issues that there’s no equivalence between the two issues,” said Arens, who was “very involved in Pollard’s “activities” according to the spy in a 1997 interview.

Conversely, US President Barack Obama’s pledge not to interfere with the terms of Pollard’s parole — effectively keeping him grounded on US territory for half a decade — will not further exacerbate the current friction.

Even if Obama changes his mind and uses his constitutional power of executive clemency to let Pollard go now, such a gesture will not have the slightest impact on the bitter disagreement that exists between the two governments, suggested Shlomo Slonim, the former chairman of Hebrew University’s American Studies program.

“The nuclear issue is existential for Israel; it regards the agreement with Iran as paving the way for the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, and nothing short of a reversal of US policy on this issue could possibly bring about a better atmosphere in relations between the leaders of the two countries,” he said.

Some Israeli and American pundits are hoping that Pollard’s release could silence or at least reduce Jerusalem’s vociferous criticism of the nuclear deal, which the US and five other world powers signed with Iran in Vienna earlier this month.

But the fact that the US Justice Department granted him parole, allowing him to go free on November 20 — exactly 30 years after he entered prison — is a legal process taking its natural course rather than a politically motivated gesture.

Had Pollard been denied parole again, he would have had to remain incarcerated for another 15 years.

Jonathan Pollard in a December 17, 1997, photo with Israel's communications minister Limor Livnat, who visited him in prison in Butner, North Carolina (photo credit: AP/ Ayala Bar)
Jonathan Pollard in a December 17, 1997, photo with Israel’s communications minister Limor Livnat, who visited him in prison in Butner, North Carolina (AP/ Ayala Bar)

The notion of Pollard, a Texas native who was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995, as a card in a political poker game with Jerusalem has some history. His release, adamantly demanded by successive Israeli governments, had been raised several times in the context of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In 1998, US president Bill Clinton urged Netanyahu to free Palestinian prisoners, who in turn asked for Pollard’s release. Clinton considered letting him go, but decided not to after then-CIA chief George Tenet threatened to step down.

Pollard’s possible release was again brought up in 2014, during the most recent US-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But as the talks collapsed over Israel’s refusal to release a fourth promised batch of Palestinian security prisoners, the prospective deal never came to fruition.

“I always thought it was mistake to connect Pollard with those issues,” said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University. “But the government was desperate about the fact that nothing worked. When people kept their mouth shut, he wasn’t released. When they organized and actively lobbied, he wasn’t released. So they thought, maybe through negotiations [with the Palestinians] it would work. But it didn’t.”

Few analysts believe that Obama will change his mind and allow Pollard to come to Israel immediately. But even if he did, in one last attempt to squeeze some political capital out of the hapless analyst-cum-spy, chances that this move could muffle Israeli criticism on the Iran nuclear accord are close to zero.

“Netanyahu made the decision to challenge the deal all the way, no matter what,” Gilboa said. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited Jerusalem last week to discuss a major upgrade to the military assistance Israel receives from the US, but the prime minister reportedly rebuffed the initiative.

If Netanyahu turned down a lucrative compensation package in order to retain the moral right to sound off on a deal he deems a grave historic mistake, Gilboa argued, surely Pollard’s long overdue parole will not lead him to quiet down.

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