Netanyahu to publicly ask Obama for Pollard’s release: will this help or hurt?

This morning  Associated Press reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided to “press President Barack Obama to release” convicted spy Jonathan Pollard “in a formal and public manner."

This came after what the Jerusalem Post called an “emotional meeting” with Esther Pollard on Monday.

Netanyahu and his predecessors have called for Pollard’s release privately, but a public appeal would be something new.

Which leads to the question: will this change the Pollard calculus in the inner sanctums of a battered, beleaguered Obama administration?

My unequivocal answer: it depends.

On one hand, releasing Pollard might be seen by the administration as a way to make it easier for Netanyahu to make some concessions on settlements and other matters to help revive an all-but-dead Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And it’s a way for the administration to give something to Israel without a backlash from the Palestinians – who essentially don’t care about the Pollard issue.

On the other, the administration, reeling from the collapse of its latest peace efforts, probably isn’t feeling too kindly toward a prime minister who has badly outmaneuvered a cocky but inexperienced president and whose commitment to a two-state solution anytime soon many suspect.

That may suggest getting an official, public request from the PM might do more harm than good to Pollard.

What will definitely do him harm: the blogs that have appeared in recent days repeating claims that Pollard’s spying was a heroic response to Washington’s withholding of vital intelligence data that Israel had a right to receive.

Anything that signals he will be received as a hero in Israel will make it harder for President Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence – if, indeed, that is his desire.

If Obama does act, it will be fascinating to see how congressional Republicans react.

Increasing, many of them are best buds with Pollard’s most vocal supporters in Israel – the political right and the settlers’ movement.

But they are also strong defense hawks, and they will undoubtedly be sensitive to a defense and intelligence establishment that will howl with rage if Pollard is released – and especially if he is welcomed to Israel as a hero of Zion. It’s no accident that not a single Republican signed a recent House letter calling for commutation.

A prominent Jewish activist called this morning and asked for my assessment: will Obama act on Pollard? My answer: I still think it’s unlikely, but possibly less unlikely than it’s been at any time in the past 26 years.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.