I’m hearing more and more rumbles about a possible effort by the Israeli government to win the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, now in his 25th year in prison.
Contrary to earlier reports, the talk doesn’t center on a trade – releasing Pollard in return for an extension of the West Bank settlement moratorium, a major sticking point in the continuation of the recently restarted Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Instead, the focus is on urging his release on humanitarian grounds – and on convincing the Obama administration that commutation might be seen as a goodwill gesture that would make it easier for Prime Minister Netanyahu to find a formula for keeping the sagging talks going.
That meshes with the pitch of a group of Democratic House members.
Led by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) , the lawmakers wrote to President Obama citing “the positive impact that a grant of clemency would have in Israel, as a strong indication of the goodwill of our nation towards Israel and the Israeli people. This would be particularly helpful at a time when the Israeli nation faces difficult decisions in its long-standing effort to secure peace with its neighbors."
And last week Pollard’s attorneys filed a new petition asking President Obama to commute Pollard’s sentence to time served.
Could it work?
Possibly, but there are obstacles.
President Obama, facing sinking approval numbers and potentially disastrous congressional midterm elections, may not be inclined to ignite an ugly public war with a good part of the intelligence and defense establishments – which would be all but inevitable if Pollard’s sentence is commuted.
Those among Pollard’s supporters who portray him as hero of Zion could also make it harder for Obama to go along with such a request. Commuting the sentence of a spy is doable; commuting the sentence of a spy whose supporters insist what he did was necessary and even heroic would be tough for any president.
But pitched properly, it might just have some appeal to a president whose efforts to counter charges he is anti-Israel haven’t quelled the chorus from the Jewish right in this country or eased concerns in the pro-Israel center. And it might buy Netanyahu some wiggle room in the peace process maneuvering now taking place – if, indeed, Netanyahu really wants the talks to continue.
Today I heard from a leading Jewish activist who’s in Jerusalem and has talked to a number of government officials there; he told me he was “very surprised” by the intensity of the Pollard talk he’s hearing.
What’s not at all clear: has any of that talk surfaced in Washington-Jerusalem diplomatic contacts? Also not clear: will Pollard’s supporters be able to suppress their loathing of the government in Jerusalem long enough for the new talk to develop into something more than just talk? In the end, only Prime Minister Netanyahu can get the ball rolling – and it’s hard to see him walking that particular tightrope as long as he’s getting slammed by pro-Pollard forces.