Unprecedented criticism of Netanyahu by American officials

October 25, 1998 - Nitzan Horowitz, Ha'aretz Correspondent

Officials at the highest level of the U.S. government have been using unprecedented language to criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for trying to make the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard part of the deal at the Wye Summit.

The summit nearly ended in a breakdown after Israel added Pollard's release to its demands. Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon tried to make Israel's release of Palestinian prisoners contingent on the release of Pollard, who has spent the past 12 years in U.S. prisons after being convicted of spying for Israel. The Americans called that move "blackmail."

When U.S. President Bill Clinton told Netanyahu on Friday morning that the U.S. would not release Pollard, the prime minister threatened to boycott the signing ceremony of the Wye Memorandum. At the same time, members of the Israeli delegation were leaking to the press that Pollard would be joining Netanyahu on board the air force flight back to Israel.

U.S. sources called the Israeli action "extortion." Senior U.S. officials at Wye were heard cursing Netanyahu and the U.S. State Department denied that any deal had been done to free Pollard.

The White House ceremony was eventually postponed for four hours because of the crisis, which included Clinton terming Israeli claims that he had agreed to free Pollard, "lies." In his speech at the signing ceremonies, Clinton did say that he agreed to review Pollard's case, but made no promise to release the convicted spy.

U.S. sources said that by tying Pollard's release - and the release of Azam Azam, an Israeli Arab convicted in Egypt of spying - to the Wye talks, Netanyahu was trying to exploit the president.

Israeli sources in the delegation still insist that Clinton had promised to free Pollard, and Egypt confirmed that Clinton had asked if it would be possible to free Azam.

American Jewish leaders, too, criticized Netanyahu for bringing the Pollard affair into the Wye talks. Senior Republican officials, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich also told the president not to release "the traitor."

The chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, wrote to Clinton that he is "very troubled" that Clinton would even consider paroling Pollard, "now or in the future."

Israeli sources said that Jerusalem would continue pressing for Pollard's release, "because this is a very important issue and we will spare no effort to get him released."

The sources denied that the demand to free Pollard caused any problems in relations between the two countries. "You heard what the president said," said a source in the delegation, referring to Clinton's promise to review Pollard's case.