Bret Stephens is wrong: let Pollard go

Israeli demonstrators call for Pollard's release, 2005

Israeli demonstrators call for Pollard’s release, 2005

Bret Stephens, whose writing I admire and with whom I usually agree, has come out against freeing Jonathan Pollard (subscription):

Regarding the Israeli interest: It does not help Israel to make a hero of a compulsive liar and braggart, fond of cocaine, who violated his oaths, spied on his country, inflicted damage that took billions of dollars to repair, accepted payment for his spying, jeopardized Israel’s relationship with its closest ally, failed to show remorse at the time of his sentencing, made himself into Exhibit A of every anti-Semitic conspiracy nut, and then had the chutzpah to call himself a martyr to the Jewish people.

Nor does Israel do itself any favors by making Pollard’s case a matter of national interest, and therefore a chip to be played against other concessions. As Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin has noted, “That a man who claimed his crime was committed to enhance the Jewish state’s security would have his freedom bought with concessions on territory or settlements that undermine the country’s ability to defend itself must be considered a bitter irony.” All the more so given that it’s right-wing Israelis who have been most outspoken on Pollard’s behalf.

Regarding the American interest: What’s inequitable about Pollard’s sentence isn’t that his is too heavy. It’s that the sentences of spies such as Aldrich Ames, Robert Hanssen and Robert Kim have been too light. Particularly in the age of digital downloads, WikiLeaks and self-appointed transparency crusaders, the U.S. needs to make harsh examples of those who betray its secrets. That goes especially for those who spy on behalf of friendly countries or, as Bradley Manning imagined, in the ostensible interests of humanity at large.

What Stephens says about Pollard’s character is true, although he is probably wrong that Pollard “inflicted damage that took billions of dollars to repair.” Pollard’s life sentence was disproportionate precisely because of a misapprehension of the amount of damage that he caused. Recently released documents show that it was even less than supposed, and far less than implied by Defense and CIA officials at the time. Although Stephens seems to think that spying on behalf of an ally is as bad or worse than doing so for an enemy, the courts have not treated it as such (at least not until Pollard).

There is also the issue of the double-dealing by the court, which agreed to a plea bargain and then ignored it and sentenced Pollard to life imprisonment. There are good reasons to believe that this came about because of anti-Israel prejudice on the part of the judge in the case, which was played upon by unknown individuals in the Justice Department.

The reason to release Pollard after 28 years, then, is not that he is an admirable human being or a great hero of the Jewish people (although the information he provided was of great value to Israel’s security), but simply that justice demands it.

The fact that Pollard, a Jew spying for Israel, received a far greater sentence than any other person convicted of spying for an ally, and even greater than most of those who had spied for enemies like the Soviet Union, Cuba and East Germany during the cold war — saying he was ‘persecuted’ would not be too harsh — leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is something special about Jews and Israel. Part of the reason for being of a Jewish state is precisely to end this kind of ‘specialness’. This makes his release a matter of importance from Israel’s point of view.

It would be cynical and ugly if the US made him into a bargaining chip to extract concessions from Israel on territory, settlements, etc., and it would be wrong for Israel to agree to such a deal.

But this doesn’t change the moral imperative that Netanyahu should demand his release, and Obama should let him go.

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