Spying Games

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I’m sorry Mr. Snowden – the international scandal you instigated simply didn’t create the desired results in Israel as it did in the rest of the world. Whether as a result of an innocence long lost, or general public apathy, most Israelis treated the exposure of American spying on senior officials with a simple shrug of the shoulder. What are friends for after all? There was one unexpected side effect though – the sudden resurfacing of the case of Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. intelligence analyst who spied for Israel and is currently completing a life sentence in jail.

As if the talks between Israel and the Palestinians weren’t problematic enough, the issue of Jonathan Pollard has now been somehow mixed in. Prime Minister Netanyahu raised the issue of Pollard’s release in talks with the U.S. Secretary of State Kerry two weeks ago, even before the Israel-related Snowden documents went public. Reportedly, Kerry did not give an outright negative answer, which gave Netanyahu and his advisers room for optimism. The publication of the documents, after Netanyahu had already raised the issue with Kerry, created a renewed media buzz over the Pollard issue.  The Israeli media is now reporting that Netanyahu is considering requiring Pollard’s release as a condition for the future release of Palestinian prisoners in March.

Pollard’s spying activities have been somewhat downplayed in the past by the Israeli media, which seems to agree that he has suffered enough and that the time is long past to secure his release. Those advocating clemency point to Pollard’s benign (if not patriotic) motivation, the nature of his espionage (directed at Arab military and nuclear capabilities), and the value of the intelligence he stole (vital to Israel and not harmful to US interests).

Nevertheless, the damage to critical U.S. national security interests wrought by Pollard remains a most decisive and compelling rationale for Washington’s steadfastness in the wake of Israeli remonstrations. Every Israeli prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin has petitioned Washington for his release. And every request has been denied. Even President Peres, who carried a signed petition to Obama calling for Pollard’s release, was rebuffed.

Anyone who needs a reminder as to why Pollard is in jail, should read a declassified top secret 166-page report titled: “The Jonathan Jay Pollard Espionage Case: A Damage Assessment,” prepared in 1987 by the CIA. Taking a look at this interesting document, I was struck more by what is not mentioned than what is. I imagine that the amount of content still classified (the blank sections in the document) means that the damage done by Pollard is still considered by U.S. officials to be severe.

But it seems to me that the most relevant issue today is not the scale of Pollard’s duplicity or whether he has paid for his crimes or not, but the significance and implications of a possible demand by Netanyahu for his release to the U.S. sponsored peace talks.  

At first glance, Netanyahu’s thinking is not unreasonable.

Getting the Americans to release Pollard would be a big achievement for him, one that would help him through the next round of prisoner release which is supposed to include several Arab-Israeli prisoners. Considered by many Israelis as a violation of Israel’s sovereignty and an official acknowledgement that Arab citizens of Israel are, in fact, subject to the authority of a foreign political entity – the release of Arab-Israeli prisoners is a dangerous precedent that will face extreme opposition from within and without the government.

Additionally, Netanyahu is facing the possibility that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may introduce a mediation document to both Israel and the Palestinians in a few weeks, a document that is supposed to outline the framework of a future peace agreement, and will likely include principles such as holding negotiations on the basis of the 1967 borders, with minor adjustments compensated by land swaps; a long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley; resettling the refugees in the Palestinian state rather than Israel; recognizing Israel as a Jewish state; and a general statement about the capital of Palestine being in Jerusalem. The mere presentation of this document will extract a heavy political price from Netanyahu – a price he would need to balance with an achievement of his own.

Scoring points with his domestic opponents is an understandable move, no doubt. However, I’m not sure whether it’s a wise move at this specific point in time.

Relations with the American administration are currently tenuous at best, and it’s highly doubtful that publicly demanding Pollard’s release, and even worse – tying it to Israel’s continued “good” behavior during the talks with the Palestinians – will help alleviate the situation. There is absolutely no chance that Obama will release Pollard in response to an Israeli request of this sort, a) because he would rather preserve the Pollard bargaining chip for a later stage, and b) he is still not sure that Netanyahu is “all in” (imagine Obama acceding to Pollard’s release, only to be confronted with yet another declaration of settlement expansion similar to what is now in the works).

Moreover, such a demand by Israel only serves to antagonize the still large, bipartisan core of U.S. officials in the defense and security establishments who continue to oppose Pollard’s release under any circumstances, let alone for the marginal gain that would be achieved by his release now.

No. It would be much more logical to negotiate, quietly, with the Americans to include Pollard’s release as part of a final status agreement of historic proportions. Unless of course Netanyahu knows that there will never be a final status agreement – in which case he would indeed be right to play the Pollard card now.

Happy, Mr. Snowden?

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