US President Barack Obama fancies himself in grand Lincolnesque terms and avers over and over that Abraham Lincoln is his model. Quite shamelessly invoking the Great Emancipator, Obama chose to kick off his first presidential bid on February 10, 2007, in Springfield, Illinois, just where Lincoln voiced his historic challenge to slavery in June 1858. And honing the comparison with a characteristic deficit of humility, after his electoral victory Obama took his family with much pomp to the Lincoln memorial.
But, for all of Obama’s blatant manipulation, it’s not that superficial similarities don’t exist. Like Honest Abe, Obama cuts a thin, lanky figure and sports oversized ears. None too- modestly Obama considers himself a master-rhetorician, a supreme crisis-manager, if not the outright shining beacon of liberty. There’s absolutely no denying that Obama is a dab hand at stagecraft and expediency.
Milking the advantageous analogy for all it’s worth, Obama’s inauguration speech theme was lifted with abundant conceit from a line in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “a new birth of freedom.” Obama just loves the word “freedom.” With theatrical flair he enunciates it liberally at every occasion.
That in mind, it would therefore be reassuring to assume that never far from Obama’s awareness is what Lincoln wrote in 1859: “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
At this point in time the only man who denies Jonathan Pollard freedom is Obama.
It’s in the power of the US president to finally do the long overdue right thing and set free the man who now languishes in his 27th year of imprisonment for passing American intelligence (about inimical third countries – Iraq, Libya, and the then-PLO headquarters in Tunis) to a friendly country (Israel). He should have been freed way back, without linkage to his declining health.
Making a sadistic example of Pollard for nearly three decades intrinsically contradicts the most elementary notions of justice and freedom.
This is something for our president, Shimon Peres, to be mindful of when he is awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom – America’s highest civilian award – on June 13.
As a collective, we Israelis can convincingly conjecture about Obama’s motives for thus honoring Peres precisely as the race for the White House heats up. Nonetheless, we’d willingly suspend our not unjustified cynicism were the mutually beneficial presidential ego massages accompanied by a genuine gesture of freedom. We’d like nothing better than to set skepticism somewhat aside and bask in the outwardly warm glow of rare affection for an otherwise serially vilified nation.
Watching Peres wined and dined, feted and gloried (with all four living US ex-presidents partaking in the gala event), could afford us such a nice break from the disparagement and defamation that are our daily lot in the international arena. It’s tempting to forget our own exasperations with the real Peres as we knew him over the years (not always for the best) and join carefree in the celebration.
But we’re not free from care.
According to the 1987 Eban Commission Report (the Knesset committee appointed to investigate the Pollard affair), Peres – prime minister when Pollard was arrested in 1985 – played a pivotal role in the evolving misfortune.
When the story hit the press, Peres conversed with then-secretary of state George Schulz in an attempt at damage control. He lamely denied any knowledge of the operation and undertook to do everything in his power to assist the Americans in prosecuting the suspect they had just apprehended.
Instead of defending Pollard – his agent – or negotiating for his release, Peres essentially delivered Pollard to the prosecution. There’s no mincing words. Peres lied barefaced when he told Americans that Pollard was a freelancer who had purloined secrets for profit.
Also according to the Eban Commission Report, Peres was the one who handed over to the Americans all of the documents that Pollard had provided to Israel. These documents were surrendered, significantly, with Pollard’s fingerprints still on them.
This was crucial. Without these documents, there would have been no case against Pollard, no hard evidence. Without Peres’s direct collusion, Pollard would have likely walked or had his wrist reprovingly slapped. He certainly wouldn’t have been sentenced to life behind bars.
This is the first and only time in the recorded history of modern espionage that a country had cooperated in the prosecution of its own agent abroad.
Assistant US attorney John R. Fisher underscored the centrality of the evidence Israel handed over. Writing in the “Government’s Opposition to Motion to Reduce Sentence” (June 17, 1987, p. 10) Fisher elucidated: “Cooperation was not forthcoming in this case until several months after [the] defendant’s arrest. Indeed, [the] defendant agreed to enter a guilty plea and cooperate only after government attorneys and investigators returned from Israel with additional evidence of [the] defendant’s guilt.”
Fast forward 27-plus years: The man who arranged for the delivery of evidence essential to forcing Pollard to plead guilty is ironically to receive a “freedom” medal from the man who continues to deprive Pollard of his freedom. That sadly is the dishonorable bottom line of the travesty. But it’s hardly all of it.
The punishment meted out to Pollard was from the outset scandalous. It was disproportionate in the extreme, especially considering the fact that he never put American agents or interests at risk, that he never divulged anything involving America but clued in a fellow democracy about the machinations of its enemies, which happened to have also been America’s enemies.
Appreciably lighter punishment was meted to assorted US spies for greater offenses, including those involving tangible and severe security hazards to America.
The fact that Pollard was treated so ultra-harshly by any existing legal yardsticks and the fact that his tribulation is still ongoing, despite his age and infirmity, isn’t just pointlessly cruel. The departure from all punitive precedents in his case smells foul. It’s difficult to escape the impression that the only reason Pollard was over-punished and is still denied his freedom is because he’s Jewish.
Although Pollard’s life term is unparalleled for transferring classified material to an ally, no US administration in nearly three decades countenanced pardoning him. This, despite the fact that in 1991, Pollard publicly apologized and expressed further remorse in a 1996 open letter to then-president Bill Clinton. In 1998, Binyamin Netanyahu admitted Pollard spied for Israel and sought to free him as part of the Wye River deal. Clinton reneged on the agreement.
The demonstrated inequity in Pollard’s case should trouble anyone who profoundly cherishes actual freedom – not just the presidential Medal of Freedom and accruing accolades.
The profuse praises about to be showered upon Peres would all ring hollow should Peres be acclaimed and exalted in the august name of freedom while Pollard is still most literally denied freedom.
Obama most literally holds the key to Pollard’s cell. It behooves Peres to persuade Obama to use it. Peres, thus far, has been true to his promise and did formally ask for Pollard’s release.
The Obama administration issued an ambiguous statement which news outlets spontaneously interpreted as an unconditional rejection of Peres’s request. In response, Peres released a communiqué stressing that he still awaits authorized word from the White House. From that point on nothing further has been heard on the matter.
The stalemate is strange considering that the tributes Obama plans to heap upon Peres aren’t without ulterior motive. Consequently, to rebuff Peres outrightly would constitute a massive discourtesy, effusive blandishments notwithstanding.
As things stand, the last word hadn’t yet been spoken, notably because Obama said nothing personally or officially. Hence, the ball is still presumably in play.
For Obama, releasing Pollard is risk-free, rife with potential reward and wholly without political detriment. Nobody can credibly persevere in the sham that Pollard threatens American national security interests.
Indeed, the pendulum has swung hard and many former US higher-ups now support Pollard’s release and have appealed to Obama to end Pollard’s overlong ordeal. In their words, this is a matter of simple fairness because his sentence is “grossly disproportionate,” quite apart from humanitarian concerns about his age and precarious medical status.
Pollard, they say, has already more than paid his debt to society. Any additional incarceration is a miscarriage of justice. This is the opinion of, among others, former secretary of state George Shultz, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former White House legal counsel Bernard Nussbaum, former attorney-general Michael Mukasey, former deputy attorney-general Philip Heymann, former Senate intelligence chairman Dennis DeConcini, former CIA director James Woolsey and many more.
Everything now hinges on Peres’s pluck. If he acquiesces in allowing Pollard’s tragedy to be overlooked, then the denial of freedom which Peres facilitated will continue while Peres is pronounced the prince of freedom.
But if Peres musters sufficient courage, he’ll confer upon himself the most exceptional of opportunities. More popular among foreigners than any other Israeli, he can, in the unique circumstance orchestrated by Obama, conjure up prospects for rectifying his own the past. Peres can correct a wrong in which he played a critical part. He can help set things right… if he only truly wants to.
And if Peres is wary of introducing controversy into his dialogue with Obama, the soon-to-be Medal of Freedom recipient would do well to recall that George Orwell defined freedom as “the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”