Foreign Policy: In January 1999, a bipartisan group of senators sent a strongly worded letter to President Bill Clinton urging him not to commute the prison sentence of Jonathan Pollard, who was then in the 12th year of a life sentence for spying for Israel. Freeing Pollard, the lawmakers said, would “imply a condonation of spying against the United States by an ally,” would overlook the “enormity” of Pollard’s offenses and the damage he had caused to national security, and would undermine the United States’ ability to share secrets with foreign governments. Among the 60 signatories of the letter was John Kerry, then a senator from Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, Kerry is singing a very different tune.
Now, as the secretary of state, Kerry has supported using Pollard’s potential release as a bargaining chip in the Obama administration’s attempts to salvage the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The outcome of those talks was in doubt Tuesday as President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority opted to press for statehood through the United Nations, a move that Israel has long said would as a deal-breaker. A planned meeting between Kerry and Abbas was canceled as a result. Abbas said he’d made the move because Israel hadn’t released a fourth round of Palestinian prisoners. The Obama administration had envisioned potentially releasing Pollard — who is seen as a national hero by many Israelis — to help persuade Jerusalem to let those Palestinian prisoners go.
Kerry wasn’t alone in opposing Pollard’s release in 1999, when the issue was similarly under consideration as a possible sweetener for Israel during its on-again, off-again talks with the Palestinians. Kerry’s allies at the time included then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, now the secretary of defense, as well as Dianne Feinstein, the current chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Mitch McConnell, the current Senate minority leader; John McCain, a former Republican nominee for president; and Patrick Leahy, now the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Kerry and Hagel in particular now find themselves in the awkward position of serving in an administration that is considering letting Pollard go, exactly the outcome they once railed against. A spokesperson for Hagel said, “The secretary will keep private his counsel for the president.” A spokesperson for Kerry wouldn’t discuss details of any negotiations. Neither Hagel’s nor Kerry’s spokesperson addressed the positions they’d taken in 1999. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said Tuesday that Obama, who has the sole authority to commute Pollard’s sentence or grant him a pardon, “has not made a decision” on the question.
The signatories largely had strong pro-Israel voting records, but their contempt for Pollard crossed party lines and was striking in its ferocity. “Any grant of clemency would now be viewed as an acquiescence to external political pressures and a vindication of Pollard’s specious claims of unfairness and victimization…. This would send the wrong signal to employees within the Intelligence Community. It is an inviolable principle that those entrusted with America’s secrets must protect them, without exception, irrespective of their own personal views or sympathies.” [Continue reading…]