Prime Minister Netanyahu announced today that he will formally call for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard was arrested in 1985 for selling classified material to the Israeli government. He pled guilty in 1986 and was sentenced to life in prison. State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley responded to the news in a press conference later today, saying only, “all I can tell you is Jonathan Pollard remains in prison.”
The move is intended as an appeal to Netanyahu’s right wing coalition which grew increasingly irritated at Netanyahu during this year’s peace talks for his willingness to consider a settlement freeze. Tensions within the right wing between Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas have also fomented over the progression of the Rotem bill, which would certify the validity of all conversions to Judaism conducted by the IDF.
But despite coalition troubles, Netanyahu’s decision is a mistake. Freeing Pollard would not be enough to save a long-term coalition which has begun to fray. It will exacerbate the already sub-optimal relationship between Israel and the United States, and it puts American Jews in an unfairly difficult position.
Given the prominence of Wikileaks, the US Government is unlikely to free a convicted spy in a move that would be widely criticized as a double standard between Pollard and Julian Assange. Additionally, even if Netanyahu were to secure Pollard’s release, passage of a bill diluting the power of the Orthodox rabbinical establishment is a cost which Pollard's release simply does not cover.
Here in Washington, some policymakers see requests by Netanyahu for a favor after this year's settlement freeze fiasco as the height of chutzpah. The Obama was unlikely to grant Pollard’s release even as part of a final status agreement. It’s even less likely to happen as a favor to an intransigent Netanyahu government which publicly embarrassed the Obama administration and the US Government.
Finally, the move will cause bifurcation in the American Jewish community between those who support Pollard’s release and those who oppose it. Dual loyalty questions are the bane of the American Jewish establishment, and any debate over the Pollard issue is likely to be nasty. Netanyahu is needlessly putting American Jews and the organizations that represent them in a position which pits their identity as Jews against loyalty to their country. Given contemporary Jewish identity in the US, this move is not likely to win Netanyahu friends among the vast majority of Jews who will perceive Pollard’s actions for what they were, espionage and treason against the United States.