Maddened by the pardon of international fugitive Marc Rich, the pack of Clinton-hunting bloodhounds in Congress and the Washington media have typically failed to notice what may be the single most important fact about their quarry.
During the period when he was considering the Rich case, Bill Clinton was simultaneously engaged in a desperate effort to resuscitate the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and listening to Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, the former chief of the Mossad intelligence service and a host of other current and former dignitaries from Israel as they pleaded with him to pardon Rich. It is almost certain that those entreaties swayed him more than the largesse of Rich's ex-wife Denise, who has donated more than $1 million to Democrats over the last decade.
Helping Rich became a priority for Israeli officials -- particularly those in the hierarchy of the Labor Party -- because of his services to the Jewish state. Not only did the Swiss-based businessman give enormous amounts of money to charities and institutions there, but he has also used his connections in other nations to perform services for the Israeli government. According to press reports, he has assisted in the rescue of Jewish families from hostile countries, and he's believed to have gathered information for Israeli intelligence agencies as well.
If Clinton was influenced by Israeli pleas on behalf of the undeserving Rich, that wouldn't excuse his decision, which has been justly criticized as improper in both substance and appearance. Nor is Clinton exempt from criticism because his predecessor awarded pardons that were even worse. But a pardon given for reasons of state, in pursuit of peace, ought to be regarded as wholly different from a pardon awarded for political and charitable contributions.
Evidence that has emerged so far strongly suggests that the context of the peace negotiations was important and perhaps even decisive. It was no secret that Clinton, as he faced the final months of his presidency, seemed consumed with reviving and even completing the Oslo peace process before he left office. To his critics, this was proof of an unseemly obsession with his own legacy, while his supporters saw it as a noble attempt to salvage a once-promising initiative. Whatever his motivations, there is little doubt that the impasse between Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was Clinton's most urgent priority.
At a time when Clinton was urging Barak to make critical concessions to the Palestinians, the then-prime minister and various important figures in Israel were asking him for two heavy favors: a pardon for Jonathan Pollard, convicted of espionage against the United States for Israel; and a pardon for Rich, their generous benefactor and intelligence asset.
The situation Clinton faced was ably summarized by an unlikely ally on NBC's "Meet the Press" last Sunday. Former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, an ardent Republican and frequently a harsh critic of the Clinton administration, explained the situation in detail to host Tim Russert as follows: "When the prime minister of Israel, one of our closest allies, communicates with the president of the United States about a pardon, I would say to you that the president has a pretty good idea of how important the case is.The prime minister of Israel became deeply involved in this case, and he recommended a pardon."
DiGenova went on to say that "Mr. Rich has a huge foundation in Israel, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to charitable causes there. This was a very important case to the Israeli government, and they weighed in very heavily directly with the president of the United States." He also noted that Barak had sought clemency for Pollard as well.
There was never any real likelihood of mercy for Pollard, the American-born spy, whose release has been vehemently opposed by the CIA and the Pentagon for many years. With his status as a departing lame-duck executive, in fact, Clinton had almost nothing to offer his friend Barak as an inducement to take politically dangerous risks for peace -- nothing, that is, except the pardon of Rich. Barak's pressure continued until Clinton's very last hours in the White House, when he made a last-minute call to the departing president on Jan. 19, hours before Clinton announced his pardon list.
Several clues about the diplomatic aspect of the Rich controversy were revealed last week by the House Government Operations Committee, although they were ignored by Dan Burton, the Clinton-hating Indiana Republican who chairs the committee. Former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, for example, mentioned that his reservations about a Rich pardon were mitigated by its potential "foreign policy benefits."
Moreover, the e-mails sent by Rich attorney Jack Quinn to the financier's associates in Israel showed that Quinn had even hoped to enlist Leah Rabin, widow of the late prime minister and close Clinton friend Yitzhak Rabin, in the pardon campaign. (Quinn was unaware that Mrs. Rabin, too, had passed away last year.)
The $1 million donated by Denise Rich to the Clintons and other Democrats during the past decade clearly weren't considered sufficient by her lawyers to ensure the results she and her ex-husband desired. Much has been made of the revelation that Denise Rich gave more than $400,000 toward the endowment of the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Ark. According to ABC News, however, she made the last of her three contributions to the library foundation in May 2000, long before discussions of a pardon began. At that point, Marc Rich's lawyers were still attempting to negotiate a plea deal with federal prosecutors in New York, where he was originally indicted in 1983.
Denise Rich excited still more suspicion last week when she declined to answer a long list of interrogatories from the Burton committee, citing her Fifth Amendment privilege. Among the questions she refused to answer was whether she had received money from her ex-husband, which she then may have passed along to the Clintons and other politicians. But even if she did -- which would be a good reason for her to refuse to incriminate herself -- there is so far no reason to believe that the former president knew about any illicit transfer of funds from Switzerland.
While Denise Rich obviously acted in cahoots with her ex-husband and his lawyers over the past few months, nobody who knows her thinks that she befriended the Clintons and other Democrats over the past decade or so in order to help Marc Rich. In New York and Los Angeles, the songwriter-heiress-divorcee is known as an energetic social climber, to whom charity and politics are simply elements of her search for publicity and personal fulfillment. The fanatical Burton, who is so unwilling to relinquish his role as the anti-Clinton Clouseau, may be severely disappointed if and when he does force her to testify.
Again, the Rich pardon will never reflect well on the former president. Exercising an extraordinary power that ought to be reserved for the repentant and rehabilitated, he rushed to a bad judgment that benefited a very bad man. Yet the true motives behind that decision may be far less damning than whatever Clinton's most demented detractors want us to believe.