Man in the Middle

October 30, 1998 - Hillel Kuttler - The Jerusalem Post

Before the Wye River negotiations began two weeks ago, Robert Satloff, the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, approached his colleague, Patrick Clawson, with a gentlemen's bet - that just as an accord was being struck, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would put the squeeze on President Bill Clinton to free Jonathan Pollard. "I said: 'Where did that come from?' " said Clawson, the think tank's research director. "And he explained to me how Netanyahu would have to consolidate his right wing, how there'd be a five-minute window of opportunity, a feel-good moment, when he'd act." Clawson's response to his boss when the prediction came true? - "I want your stock-market tips from now on!"

While Satloff's prescience is impressive, the incident's realization was hardly laughable. It nearly derailed the Wye signing when Clinton promised only to consider the request. Indeed, it will likely harm the convicted spy's hope for liberation. Neither administration officials, members of Congress nor outside analysts interviewed believe that the premier's raising Pollard's profile as he did will cause even short-term damage to US-Israeli or Clinton-Netanyahu relations. Nor can they envision any conceivable fallout on the CIA's ability to fairly monitor the security aspects of the Wye accord, despite the agency's known opposition to Pollard's release.

Netanyahu appears to be the early loser in the whole affair, with all concurring that his biggest mistake was not in making the request, but in linking Pollard's release to Israel's signing off on the Wye accord. Even then, they say, the matter may quickly blow over, with Netanyahu at least positioning himself to right-wing opponents back home as having held out for Pollard's release. Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk called the brouhaha a result of "misunderstandings" between the US and Netanyahu. "I don't believe this is an issue which is going to cause any tension or problem in the relationship," Indyk told Israeli and Arab journalists. "What I'm saying is that this is behind us, and I think that is where it belongs."

Satloff agreed. "I doubt very much that there will be lasting residue about this because when Clinton and Netanyahu look at each other, they both look at remarkably gifted politicians in all senses of that word, which means you go for everything you can get until you find out you can't get it," said Satloff. "And I know that at lower levels there will be this residue, but I would be surprised if indeed that's the issue that over the long run is a further thorn in the two sides."

ONE administration official, who was not present at the Wye negotiations, said Netanyahu's gambit was either a "charade that everyone was going through, and Bibi was trying to show how tough he was," or "a gross error - and he made it so publicly." If the latter, he said, the effect was counter-productive, for "there was no way the president could give in to that pressure, regardless of how the president felt about it personally. It put the president in an impossible situation."

Asked if Netanyahu blundered, the official said: "Yeah, I think he did. I don't know if the president said something and led Netanyahu to think he reneged on it [releasing Pollard]. People understand why Netanyahu pressed the point: to cover his right flank if he was able to deliver Pollard.

"I think it was a tactical mistake by Netanyahu to introduce this as part of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Pollard is not part of this. [Netanyahu] put himself in a no-win situation.... When you raise an issue like this - and the way it was linked - you get into the internal affairs of another country.

"It has become such a big issue, but Israeli governments are not sensitive to the domestic ramifications in the US. This basically is an internal US matter, that Pollard violated US law and gave, whether to Israel or anyone else, massive amounts of information. It was a real betrayal."

According to one congressional source, that view typified what was heard on Capitol Hill last Friday. "It has not played well at all. I've fielded phone calls and people are vociferous. They say things like, 'They want Pollard back but refuse to return [an American teenager accused of murder],' even though it's apples and oranges," she said. "It's a very emotional issue. They believe that Clinton should not knuckle under. A lot of people are very upset.... The people who are calling and complaining about this are saying: He's a spy; he spied for Israel; they want him back; how dare they?"

In a city where "politics makes strange bedfellows," the latest Pollard affair showcases the added irony of Clinton's alignment with the Republicans' heavy hitters, against Netanyahu. No high-ranking Republican is more pro-Israel or pro-Netanyahu than House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Yet he, Senate majority leader Trent Lott, and congressman Porter Goss and Senator Richard Shelby (chairmen of the two chambers' intelligence committees) wrote Clinton on Tuesday expressing their "strong opposition" to his possibly commuting Pollard's sentence.

"We strongly believe that the exigencies presented by the agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians should not influence your [decision] at all," the four wrote. "Jonathan Pollard is a traitor.... No amount of political pressure should compel you to grant him any reprieve or pardon."

Clinton ought to be "delighted" by the box Netanyahu found himself in, said Clawson. "The people Mr. Netanyahu has been cosying up to are exactly the people who are going to be annoyed by this [attempt to free Pollard]," he said.

Jon Kyl, a Republican member of the Senate intelligence committee, called Netanyahu's request "ill-advised" if understandable, but foresees no after-effects. Netanyahu "built up a strong reservoir of good will" in Congress "and he still has it," Kyl said. "I'll tell you what it reminded me of: My colleagues inserting a little pork in the budget deal [earlier in the week] thinking that you've got to keep the train moving. That's why I voted against the budget deal; it's unseemly. "My reaction [to Netanyahu's seeking Pollard's release] was: Ouch! He didn't need to do that. But I'm not in his shoes. He may have felt he had to do it. Maybe it shows the desperate situation he's in politically."

AS IT happened, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was circulating a letter among its members when Netanyahu's entreaty to Clinton broke. The letter, to which over 30 Jewish agencies signed on, was soon to be sent to Clinton, requesting that Pollard be freed on humanitarian grounds.

In light of last week's incident, the letter will be updated, circulated again and mailed to Clinton, said Malcolm Hoenlein, the organization's executive vice chairman.

The only likely holdout agency will be the Jewish War Veterans. Bob Zweiman, past national commander, said the group will "not join in the call for pardon, parole or clemency" and will support whatever decision Clinton reaches. If the Conference of Presidents sends its letter to Clinton, JWV intends to send its own dissenting message, Zweiman said.

When Pollard was arrested in 1985, his crime hit close to home for many American Jews, angry at how the actions of one of their own might call into question their loyalty to the US. Thirteen years later, as talks at Wye stretched on last Friday morning, Jewish organizations were inundated with phone calls, more wondering about the accord's being held in abeyance than about Pollard's fate. By the time ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval traveled to New York on Monday to brief the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Pollard was completely off the radar screen.

In his opening remarks, Shoval emphasized that Netanyahu did not spring the request on Clinton at the last minute and that Israel mistakenly thought it had an understanding on Pollard's release. Thereafter, not one participant raised the matter, with all questions relating only to the Wye accord and its implications.

WHY WAS there no discussion of Pollard? Said JCPA's associate director Martin Raffel: "At this point, the position of the community has crystallized, that Pollard has served enough and should be freed on humanitarian grounds. "The leaders of the [Jewish] community know that a big public campaign on behalf of Pollard is not the way to go, that the best way to proceed is through quiet channels and not to make this into a very public issue," said Raffel. "If the agreement had been derailed by Pollard, we might be having a very different discussion right now. Pollard certainly is a human-interest story but the Wye agreement relates to the future of the Middle East peace process, Israel's security. You really can't compare the two