Why Free Jonathan Pollard Now?
Forget the Israeli-Palestinian talks – it’s all about American politics
The reported deal to release Jonathan Pollard in exchange for the release of an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners, suspension of settlement building, and an extension of the "peace process" beyond the April 30 deadline is a complete fraud. It has nothing to do with resolving the Palestinian question, and – if it becomes a fact – represents nothing but Washington’s capitulation before Tel Aviv’s ceaseless demands.
Indeed, I rather doubt the Pollard matter is primarily related to the negotiations with the Palestinians. After all, what would the US be getting in this exchange but the mere hope that a comprehensive deal can be reached before the end of the month – with no assurances that such an agreement will actually be forthcoming. That this hope is a slender one goes without saying: like the quest for the Holy Grail, the search for the key to unlocking the "peace process" in Palestine has become emblematic of the impossible. So who will be surprised when April 30 comes and we wind up with nada?
What, then, is this all about? If the prospect of peace in the Holy Land is as elusive as it’s ever been, then why is John Kerry dangling Pollard in front of the Israelis? One has to conclude there is more at stake in these negotiations than the status of the occupied territories, the question of settlements, and one traitor’s freedom. We have, of course, no way of knowing exactly what this entails: is the US using Pollard to forestall an Israeli attack on Iran?
That there is more to this deal than meets the eye is underscored, in my view, by the extraordinary efforts successive Israeli governments have made to secure Pollard’s release: every Israel Prime Minister since Pollard’s arrest and imprisonment has tried to get him out. The man Americans revile as a traitor has streets named after him in Israel and is routinely honored as a martyr who gave his all for the Jewish state: the Israeli Knesset regularly votes to demand his release.
In the context of the "special relationship" we are told exists between Israel and the US, this valorization of a spy is somewhat odd, to say the least. Although we are supposed to have no better friend in this world, doesn’t it strike anyone as strange that someone who so damaged our national security is held up as a hero without peer by our peerless "ally"?
And it isn’t just the Israelis who have been rallying to Pollard’s side all these years: a veritable army of Israel Firsters has been mobilized in defense of the "hero" Pollard right here in the US. This kind of thing is rare in American politics: a significant mobilization on behalf of an accused spy in the pay of a foreign power. Benedict Arnold had no defense committee, and few believe he deserved one. The only other example of the traitor-as-hero I can think of is the Rosenbergs, on whose behalf American Communists and their fellow travelers campaigned for a pardon. Indeed, the two cases are alike in some of their specifics, as well as in the more general sense of the anti-hero valorized for ideological reasons.
To begin with, what the Rosenbergs stole and what Pollard made off with were similar in terms of their centrality to American national security. The Rosenbergs stole nuclear secrets at the moment when the fate of the postwar world could’ve gone one way or the other. The war was still going but the end was in sight, and the race to develop nuclear weapons – in which the Soviets were lagging, but the Germans still hoped to win – was proceeding under the radar of most Americans. Without the Rosenbergs, the Soviets might never have created a nuclear arsenal in time to build a credible deterrent. The cold war might never have happened – or else it would’ve been far shorter.
While the scale of Pollard’s theft is not precisely known, what we do know is that he stole much information that would’ve only been useful to the Soviets. Seymour Hersh nailed it:
"A number of officials strongly suspect that the Israelis repackaged much of Pollard’s material and provided it to the Soviet Union in exchange for continued Soviet permission for Jews to emigrate to Israel. Other officials go further, and say there was reason to believe that secret information was exchanged for Jews working in highly sensitive positions in the Soviet Union. A significant percentage of Pollard’s documents, including some that described the techniques the American Navy used to track Soviet submarines around the world, was of practical importance only to the Soviet Union. One longtime C.I.A. officer who worked as a station chief in the Middle East said he understood that ‘certain elements in the Israeli military had used it’ – Pollard’s material – ‘to trade for people they wanted to get out,’ including Jewish scientists working in missile technology and on nuclear issues."
Pollard gave away what many consider the "crown jewels" of American intelligence-gathering: "sources and methods," i.e. how our intelligence systems work. Whoever had this key could unlock our deepest secrets – and take out our agents all over the world.
The other parallel with the Rosenberg case is in the talking points used by the traitors’ respective defenders. The red-pinko popular front that turned out at "Free the Rosenbergs" rallies believed these spies for the Soviet Union were victims of anti-Semitism. The inevitable comparisons to the Dreyfuss case were made. As a good piece on MyJewishLearning puts it:
"The fear that the Rosenberg case would exacerbate anti-Semitism was heightened by the emphasis of European and American Communists on the couple’s Jewish background once it became clear that they were not going to talk. Anti-Semitism, their supporters charged, was behind the government’s prosecution and execution of the Rosenbergs. The Rosenbergs’ defenders wondered why the New York City jury that convicted the Rosenbergs did not contain one Jew, even though the city’s population was 30 percent Jewish. They also noted that, even if the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, their crime had been committed during World War II, when the Soviet Union was not an enemy of the United States. At the worst, the Rosenbergs had provided information to an ally, and this did not warrant the death penalty."
Pollard’s defenders use almost identical arguments: Israel is an ally of the United States, they aver, the best friend we ever had – he shouldn’t be in jail because he was only defending that ally. This is usually followed by the claim that the "persecution" of Pollard is an example of anti-Semitism-run-amok. Pardoning him, they say, will correct a grave injustice.
Given the sheer scope of Pollard’s thievery, it’s hard to see how any American could defend his actions – but all too easy to see why he’s a hero in Israel.
After all, the "special relationship" is, in many ways, a love-hate relationship. We love them – and we give them billions, and unconditional diplomatic support that isolates us internationally. Yet we also resent them for being so unreasonable – a long-simmering feeling that has boiled over during the Obama administration and is now being openly voiced by both sides.
For years dependent on Western support and financial assistance, the Israelis have long harbored an undercurrent of anti-Americanism that hasn’t bothered to disguise itself of late. Dependence breeds resentment, and this is doubly true for the sort of ultra-nationalists who are now in the ascendant in Israeli politics: tweaking America pays off politically in Israel as well as in Russia, Iran, and China. This tendency in Israeli politics finds its fullest expression in Pollard’s elevation to hero status – a figure so popular that Netanyahu finds himself obliged to demand his freedom.
The last time Netanyahu tried to pull this, back in 1998 when the Clinton administration was trying to do what Kerry is currently attempting, CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign if Pollard were freed. I doubt Brennan has the balls to follow suit, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see lower level resignations, and a chorus of criticism from the ever-dwindling pro-American faction of the national security bureaucracy.
The Israel lobby needs this victory badly, and it looks like the Obama administration has decided to give it to them. They’ve been in retreat ever since the confirmation of Chuck Hagel. The popular outcry that stopped the Syria strike was also a big blow to their prestige, adding to the growing perception that their vaunted influence is on the wane. The freeing of Pollard – and in exchange for suspiciously little – would reassure the true believers that the Lobby still has what it takes – a key to their continued survival as a force to be reckoned with in Washington.
This, I think, is the key to understanding how Pollard got pulled into John Kerry’s road show. After handing the Lobby a number of notable defeats, the freeing of Pollard is a consolation prize – entirely unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian talks, which are only a cover for an old-fashioned under-the-table political pay off.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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- America, the Helpless ‘Superpower’ – September 18th, 2016
- Two Boys in Aleppo – September 15th, 2016