A conversation with Jonathan Pollard

A conversation with Jonathan Pollard: Betrayed by Gingrich and Netanyahu, the convicted spy for Israel blasts the politics behind his latest failed hope for clemency.

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Among the legions of people toasting the fall of House Speaker Newt Gingrich these days, few are as satisfied as Jonathan Pollard, the convicted American Jewish spy for Israel who has spent the past 13 years in high-security federal penitentiaries.

The thickly bearded, heavy-set, 43-year-old Pollard is hardly at odds with Gingrich ideologically. Both men share an enthusiasm for high-frontier strategic thinking and a visceral fondness for the tough-minded "peace through strength" policies of the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These days, however, both Netanyahu and Gingrich have earned special places on Pollard's personal enemies list.

Pollard is known for his acerbic and frequently profane commentary on the whole series of U.S. and Israeli leaders whom he holds responsible for leaving him to rot in prison since he was sentenced to life behind bars for spying for Israel back in 1986. He is deeply unhappy with Netanyahu for what he believes was a less than sincere and sustained effort to win his freedom during last month's Wye Plantation summit conference with Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and President Clinton.

And Pollard is positively livid at Gingrich, whom he holds personally responsible for sabotaging a purported deal between the parties to let him leave for Israel in exchange for the Jewish state's agreement not to demand the extradition of 36 Palestinians wanted on terrorism charges, including Ghazi Jabili, the commander of the Palestinian Authority police force.

Apparently prompted by the CIA, which sprang into full stop-Pollard mode the moment the deal to release Pollard was prematurely leaked to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott immediately dispatched a stern open letter to Clinton demanding that he not free Pollard. Gingrich and Lott have been staunch political allies of Netanyahu in his efforts to fend off Clinton administration pressure for concessions to the Palestinians. The GOP leaders referred to the jailed spy as "one of the most notorious traitors in U.S. history" and expressed fear in their letter that once Pollard was allowed to go to Israel he might "resume his treacherous conduct and further damage the national security of the United States."

Clinton, incensed at the Israelis for leaking the story and fearful that the Republicans would make political hay by accusing him of yet another high crime and misdemeanor -- this time, betraying American security interests -- dug in his heels with Netanyahu and refused to follow through on releasing Pollard, finally agreeing only to conduct another in a series of reviews of the Pollard case. Clinton has already rejected clemency for Pollard twice during his presidency and few informed observers expect the latest review to yield a different result.

In a telephone interview from Butner Federal Penitentiary in North Carolina the day after Gingirch announced his resignation as speaker of the House, Pollard exclaimed, "This is wonderful irony. Newt tried to prevent me from ever seeing the light of day, but I'm still alive and struggling for my freedom and Newt is finished politically. Gingrich was a supposed friend of Israel, but he stabbed Israel and me in the back at Wye, because he wanted something to use against Clinton for cheap political advantage before the elections. Now he is gone, and the main GOP barrier to my release is no longer there. Whoever comprises the new GOP leadership will have to look at this in a fresh light."

Pollard is a smart political strategist and an even better spinner. His professed optimism that Clinton may now be emboldened, by the election results and by Gingrich's fall, to turn around and grant him clemency rings more than a little hollow. The conventional wisdom among both Washington insiders and Pollard supporters these days is that after the blow-up at Wye, the reanimation of bitter resistance to his release by the U.S. intelligence community and Gingrich's replacement as speaker by the less avidly pro-Israel Robert Livingston, the earliest prospect for Clinton to grant Pollard clemency and let him fly to Israel would be the waning days of the president's tenure in office in January 2001.

Yet if Pollard is despondent over the shattering denouement of Wye, he gives no evidence of it. During his 13 bitter years of imprisonment, including six years in solitary confinement, Pollard has become accustomed to seeing his hopes for liberation repeatedly dashed by what he characterizes as a malevolent brew of fear, loathing and covert anti-Semitism in the U.S. intelligence community; long-standing reluctance on the part of the Israelis to acknowledge that his spying activities in the early 1980s were anything more than a rogue operation; and a less than ardent advocacy for his freedom by American Jewish leaders clearly fearful of being charged with dual loyalty.

Through it all, Pollard has managed to preserve his profane sense of humor and considerable charm while dealing with journalists. But sadly, he has unleashed his mounting fury at his situation on his family, friends and supporters from the early years of his imprisonment. Among those he accuses of having bungled the effort to free him and with whom he has broken off all ties are his former wife, Anne, who served four years in prison for her knowledge of his espionage activities, his sister Carol, who led the worldwide Free Jonathan Pollard campaign for the first six years he was in prison, and his frail parents, Morris and Mollie, who are well into their 80s.

Lately, after years of disappointment, momentum had appeared to at last be running in Pollard's direction. Last year his long-standing application for citizenship was granted by the Israeli government and beginning last fall a string of Israeli cabinet ministers began making the pilgrimage to visit him at Butner. In May 1998, Netanyahu publicly acknowledged what had been evident all along; that Pollard had not been a rogue spy during the 1980s but an official Israeli operative whose mission was known at the highest levels of the government in Jerusalem.

Finally, in September, Israeli Absorption Minister Yuli Edelshtein, himself a former refusenik jailed for several years by the KGB, visited Washington and met with a number of top Republican legislators and aides on Capitol Hill. According to Edelshtein aide Vera Golovinsky, the Republicans made clear that they would not oppose a decision by Clinton to grant clemency to Pollard "as long as Pollard were taken out of the country quietly and not as a hero."

Among the influential Republicans from whom Pollard insists Edelshtein received a sympathetic response to his appeal on behalf of Pollard was Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Golovinsky declined to directly confirm that Edelshtein had met with Hatch, saying that the minister's Capitol Hill meetings were off the record, but confirmed that Edelshtein had formed the impression while in Washington that Hatch "could live with" the release of Pollard to the Israelis. She noted that even in a post-Wye interview on CNN in which Hatch criticized the tying of Pollard into the negotiations, he nevertheless "was much more conciliatory toward Jonathan than Gingrich had been. It wasn't in the same spirit at all."

Hatch foreign policy advisor Paul Matulick dismissed the contention that Hatch was softer on Pollard than his GOP counterparts and said that while he could not confirm that Hatch had met Edelshtein, he was incensed "by the idea that any minister who had a closed door meeting in Sen. Hatch's office would talk to the press about it."

If influential Republicans on the Hill indeed signaled to Edelshtein that they would countenance a decision by Clinton to release Pollard as long as it was done discreetly, the problem for Pollard was that discretion concerning the jailed spy was the last thing Netanyahu wanted as the Wye summit reached its frenzied climax. On the contrary, faced with the prospect of an open rebellion by hardcore right-wing supporters who were deeply distressed that the prime minister had finally signed on to an agreement to turn over 13.1 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians, Netanyahu decided that the best means he had available to assuage their wrath was to triumphantly bring Jonathan Pollard home with him on his own plane after the White House signing ceremony.

On Nov. 11, the New York Times reported that the premature leak on the morning of Oct. 23 of Clinton's alleged understanding with Netanyahu to release Pollard caused CIA Director George Tenet to immediately inform the president that he would resign if Clinton did so. Since Clinton had agreed with the Israelis and Palestinians to use the CIA to monitor Palestinian efforts to prevent terror attacks against Israelis, he had special reason not to cross the agency at such a sensitive moment. According to Kenneth Timerman, a neo-conservative Washington policy analyst and Pollard supporter, Tenet warned the president that "releasing Pollard will hurt you in the elections as the Republicans will accuse you of damaging national security."

Timerman notes that Tenet had reason to be confident of such GOP outrage, as he himself called Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, that morning to express his anger concerning Pollard's release. Shelby immediately released a statement strongly denouncing it. Reached for comment, Laura Cox, a spokeswoman for Shelby, said she "assumed" that Shelby spoke out about Pollard "after being contacted by CIA people." She stressed, "Sen. Shelby's position on this issue has nothing to do with Israel, but with a belief that Jonathan Pollard is a convicted spy against this country and to release him would send a very dangerous message to anyone who would spy against the U.S." Asked whether Shelby wants Pollard to spend the rest of his life in prison, Cox responded, "Absolutely."

Within a couple of hours of the release of Shelby's anti-Pollard statement, Gingrich and Lott rushed forward with their own. Pollard believes that Gingrich's motives may have been as much political as involved with supposed concern with U.S. security. Pollard says Gingrich was "royally pissed" at his erstwhile Israeli ally, Netanyahu, for ignoring repeated requests that he delay holding the summit so as not to give Clinton a foreign policy triumph in advance of the November elections -- and also because Netanyahu did not push Clinton to allow Gingrich and Lott to attend the White House photo-op for the signing.

According to Pollard, "It was pay-back time on Newt's part, and what better way to stick it to Bibi than to make sure he wouldn't have me to bring home? "

Pollard says informed sources reveal that Clinton has already made his latest review and decided to reject clemency once again. But he has by no means given up hope. In the wake of a terror bombing in Jerusalem, the Netanyahu government has delayed carrying out the Wye agreement until Arafat cracks down more firmly on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist networks and until the Palestinians revoke once and for all articles in their charter calling for Israel's destruction. Since Arafat seems unable to go far enough to meet Netanyahu's demands, Pollard reasons, the Clinton administration is likely to have to intervene all over again to get the parties to implement the agreement.

"Both the Israelis and Palestinians are giving up a lot in this deal," Pollard reasons. "The Israelis are trading a big chunk of land and putting their security more at risk, and the Palestinians are being forced to crack down on their extremists and temper their animosity toward Israel. Both parties will have to adapt to have the CIA operating in the West Bank to monitor compliance. So what is the U.S. trading? It is no longer the honest broker, but a full-fledged participant in the peace process. It has to give something too." The best card the U.S. has to trade at this point, Pollard clearly feels, is himself.

By Walter Ruby

Walter Ruby is a New York writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Village Voice and Israeli newspapers.

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Espionage Middle East Newt Gingrich