The ransoming of captives [פדיון שבויים] takes precedence over the feeding and clothing of the poor. Indeed there is no religious duty more meritorious than the ransoming of captives, for not only is the captive included in the generality of the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked, but his very life is in jeopardy. — Rambam (Moses Maimonides)
Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. intelligence agent who was convicted of spying for Israel, could be released before the Jewish holiday of Passover as part of efforts to save Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, an Israeli official involved in the talks told CNN. …
Kerry stated Tuesday night that “no agreement has been reached with respect to any prisoner” — be it Pollard, whom he was asked about, or anyone else — though talks involving all parties are ongoing in hopes of reaching a broader agreement.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that President Barack Obama hasn’t decided whether to release the convicted spy at Israel’s request. …
In exchange for the release, the sources have said that Israel would have to make significant concessions to the Palestinians, which could include a settlement freeze, the release of additional [Palestinian and/or Israeli Arab] prisoners beyond the current group in dispute and an agreement to continue peace negotiations beyond the end-of-April deadline.
The continued imprisonment (29 years) of Jonathan Pollard, the highly disproportionate sentence he received and the dishonest conduct of the government in his affair are a blot on the supposedly equal justice system of the United States.
Pollard should have been released long ago, but it seems that the government has been waiting for the moment at which it could exact the heaviest ransom. It’s true that nations act according to interests, and concepts like justice and mercy are not relevant to interests. On the other hand, nations have leaders who make decisions, and they are ultimately held to account by God, if not by history.
Last August, Israel agreed to release a total of 104 Arab prisoners, most of them convicted of murder (including multiple murderers) in order to persuade the PLO-ruled Palestinian Authority (PA) to engage in peace talks. Israel was aware that the talks would lead nowhere, but it was considered more important to remain in the good graces of the US. Three of four scheduled prisoner releases have been carried out; in each case, freed murderers were greeted as honored heroes on their return to the PA. There was a great public outcry in Israel — after all, these are murderers and Israel has received nothing in return from the PLO except more incitement to murder.
The fourth and last release has been held up by Israel, primarily because it includes Arab citizens of Israel, whose release calls Israel’s sovereignty over its own citizens into question, and because the PLO has hardened its positions rather than moving closer to an agreement.
Now the US is raising the possibility of freeing Pollard in return for going ahead with the last scheduled prisoner release, and acceding to even more PLO demands. This could be the last time it will be possible for the US to play this particular card, since Pollard is not well and could die in prison (and on the conscience of Barack Obama).
In other words, the US wants to use its Jewish captive — he is no more than that, because he has long since paid his debt to the US for his offenses — to extract concessions from Israel to benefit the PLO, one of the most vicious of terrorist organizations in recent history and one which has absolutely zero desire to end its conflict with Israel.
The fourth prisoner release will damage and humiliate Israel while strengthening the PLO. Other concessions as demanded will do the same. It goes without saying that continuing the negotiations with the PLO will only result in more opportunities for the US to pressure Israel to meet new Palestinian demands.
So Benjamin Netanyahu (leaving aside the significant political consequences for his government that will follow from this decision) is left with a very difficult choice. Should he take the deal, release more murderers to go home to their heroes’ receptions and lifetime pensions (paid for mostly by US taxpayers), compromise Israel’s claim on the territories by freezing construction, and reward the PLO for its intransigence in other ways?
Or should he reject it, almost certainly to see an old Jew die in prison, a Jew that he is enjoined to redeem from captivity both by his tradition and his position as head of the Jewish state — after all, one of the reasons for the founding of the Jewish state was to provide a refuge for Jews everywhere?
There is a precedent. In 1286, scholar and rabbi Meïr of Rothenburg was arrested and imprisoned in Germany (purportedly for leading a band of Jews attempting to emigrate to Palestine).
The account of a young contemporary of Meïr, who was in very close relations with him, seems to indicate, however, that Meïr had entirely different reasons for emigrating. He says that the emperor demanded a great sum of money from the Jews, which the latter would not or could not pay, and that consequently their leader feared—and justly so, as the sequel showed—that the emperor would seize him as a hostage …
The Jewish communities of course did everything to secure the liberation of their greatest teacher; but the ransom demanded by the government—30,000 marks, according to one report—was such an exorbitant one that the negotiations dragged. A later authority … says that Meïr himself prevented any such high sum being paid for his liberation lest the government should repeat this expedient of imprisoning important men for the purpose of extorting money. He therefore remained in prison from June 28, 1286, until his death (1293).
It’s understood, therefore, that a ransom can be too high, in which case it is permissible to allow a captive to go unredeemed.
This is one of those (frequent) times when I am glad that I am not the Prime Minister of Israel! I don’t know what he will decide, but it is absolutely despicable for the Obama Administration to use Pollard in this way, despicable to place the Prime Minister in this position, and — more than anything — despicable to support the PLO (because that is what this amounts to) in its project to eliminate the Jewish state.