Pushing Rich Pardon Hurt Jonathan Pollard
and Undermines Strategic Israel-US Alliance

Joseph Alpher - Ha'aretz - February 26, 2001

There are many ugly aspects to the affair of the pardon granted by former U.S. president Bill Clinton to Jewish millionaire Marc Rich. The aspect that should be of great concern to Israel is the incredible lack of thought displayed by senior Israeli leaders, who spoke so highly of Rich and who took no notice of the impact their words of praise could have on American-Israeli relations. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Rich has, in fact, made an impressive contribution to both Israel and the Jewish people. Nonetheless, the same question must be directed at outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert, former prime minister and currently Regional Development Minister Shimon Peres, Public Security Minister and Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) head and former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, and other key Israel figures:

"Why, before signing letters that requested Clinton to pardon Rich, did you not bother to verify with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), with the U.S. Congress and with the American Jewish community how they would react to the pardon requests that serve to identify these leaders, and indirectly Israel, with Clinton's dubious pardon? Why did you, who claim - and are obligated - to be very familiar with America, assume that whatever is directed to the White House and ends up on the desk of the president (in this case, one who is a highly problematic figure on issues of morality, legal procedure and justice) will be welcomed in all the other institutions comprising the American administration?" Considering how important the U.S. is to Israel, these senior Israeli leaders demonstrated an alarming degree of ignorance regarding the way Americans run their country.

Let us also assume (and this is certainly a fairly reasonable assumption) that the grave charges against Rich - alleged tax-evasion on an immense scale and alleged commercial ties with Iran (which is, it should be recalled, Israel's enemy) - were unknown to the majority of the recipients of his donations here in Israel. Thus, directors of cultural and educational institutions accepted money that U.S. authorities claim was supposed to go into U.S. tax coffers, and did not bother to ask who, in fact, this philanthropist named Marc Rich really was. However, all those who contacted Clinton directly with their pardon requests certainly should have known who he was. It simply does not make sense that, in their letters, they did not bother to ask for what alleged offenses they were requesting a pardon.

Rich occupied a high rung on the DOJ's list of most-wanted persons. His actions caused great embarrassment to many circles in the American Jewish community. All those who took the trouble to learn about Rich from judicial and Jewish sources were castigated for the very thought that they would receive money from him, and were even more strongly reprimanded for the very thought of taking any action to secure his pardon. Did any of Israel's leaders conduct a serious investigation of the charges against Rich, subsequently reaching the conclusion that a pardon for this person was unquestionably the right thing - despite the reaction that this pardon would generate, and despite the damage it would inflict on Israel's image and standing? It is highly doubtly that any of these leaders did so.

The involvement of senior Israeli leaders in the attempts to obtain a pardon for Rich could have serious consequences in several different spheres.

First, this involvement could severely undermine the efforts to secure the release of Jonathan Pollard - a Jew who made an important contribution to Israeli national security and who has been given, in the opinion of almost everyone, an excessively severe sentence. Senior figures in the American system of justice, who have been deeply offended by the involvement of high-level Israeli leaders in Rich's pardon, will in the future be highly skeptical about, if not hostile toward, any additional pardon requests coming from Israel.

Second, yet another brick has been removed from the wall protecting the strategic alliance between the U.S. and Israel. One of the foundations of this alliance is the concept of "common values" shared by both America and the Jewish state. When Israel is perceived to be thumbing its nose at American values in the fields of morality, jurisprudence and justice; and when senior Israeli leaders help to hamstring top DOJ officials in Washington regarding the issue of pardons, Israel has directly undermined these common values.

Granted, a lethal blow has not been dealt to these values. However, the real danger lies in the accumulation of acts that serve to undermine the common values. Prior to the collective effort to secure a pardon for Rich was Israel's attempt to sell its Phalcon espionage plane to China in total disregard for the protests made by both the Pentagon and the U.S. Congress. Even Israel's handling of the current Al-Aqsa Intifada - especially the economic closure of the territories and the assassination of key Palestinians - is increasingly being regarded in Washington as running counter to those commonly held values. In the background there is, of course, the Pollard affair itself. The fact that both Pollard and Rich are American Jews could harden attitudes toward Israel even among members of the American Jewish community, which is Israel's second-most-important strategic ally - at least among those members of the community who were not themselves dazzled by Rich's philanthropy.

In the final analysis, in the context of Israel's relationship with the U.S., friction and actions perceived as injurious to common values and interests are natural and unavoidable. Nonetheless, given its special situation, Israel should try to avoid the accumulation of damage. With all due respect to the Jewish state, it should be recalled that Israel is a junior partner in that relationship. Israel should be mindful of this fact and should act accordingly, except in instances where Israeli national security requires acts that are contrary to American vital interests. A pardon for Marc Rich was certainly not one of those instances.

The author is a former director of Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and a former director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel/Middle East Office.

See Also:
  • Exposé: Using Pollard to Get Rich: Yediot Achronot Exclusive Investigation
  • A Little Help From His Friends
  • Rich Pardon Planners Used PM As Key
  • The Clemency Page