The Jews Made Me Do It!

Clinton's handy excuse for pardoning Marc Rich

Christopher Caldwell - The Weekly Standard - March 5, 2001

Bill Clinton spent much of his presidency claiming he was being persecuted with a new political attack strategy: Partisan character assassins would use the Drudge Report or the National Enquirer or the American Spectator to air charges—on Whitewater, on the Lewinsky affair—that didn't meet the mainstream media's stringent rules of evidence. Once aired, the charges themselves would be news, at which point the country's papers of record could cynically report them. When in mid-February Clinton chose CNBC's trashy Rivera Live as the venue for explaining his pardon of Marc Rich—commodities trader, tax evader, fugitive, philanthropist—he was practicing state-of-the-art media warfare as he understood it.

"I'll tell you what did influence me...Israel did influence me profoundly," Clinton told Geraldo's millions, a viewership not heretofore known for its close study of Middle East diplomacy. His explanation made little obvious sense, but now it was "news," fit to print in the Sunday New York Times, which three days later opened its op-ed pages to a Clinton apologia.

Clinton ran through seven substantive reasons and one political reason for offering Rich clemency. The substantive "reasons"—from claims that three Republican lawyers urged Rich's pardon to an exculpatory analysis of Rich's tax liability commissioned by Rich himself—were either false or biased. It was the eighth, political reason in which Clinton was really taking refuge: "Finally, and importantly," he wrote...(importantly? the reader asked)..."many present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both major political parties and leaders of Jewish communities in America and Europe urged the pardon of Mr. Rich because of his contributions and services to Israeli charitable causes, to the Mossad's efforts to rescue and evacuate Jews from hostile countries, and to the peace process through sponsorship of education and health programs in Gaza and the West Bank. . . . I felt the foreign policy considerations and the legal arguments justified moving forward."

Blaming an unpopular pardon on powerful Jews—and lumping together the far-from-identical interests of American Jews and Israelis—makes a brazen kind of political sense. But it does not make for an explanation that holds up under scrutiny.

Israel's possible reasons for intervening in the Rich matter collapse into three categories: justice, money, and peace. Under none of them is Clinton's explanation credible or even plausible.

Justice. Israel's efforts to pressure foreign courts are frequently justified—even where the justice system looks functional and the defendant guilty. For instance, prime minister Ehud Barak intervened to try to stop Spain's rogue magistrate Baltasar Garzón (he of the Pinochet trial) from extraditing media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky to Russia to face corruption charges, of which he may well be guilty. What Garzón refuses to see, in all his leftist nostalgia, is that Gusinsky was charged not because he's corrupt but because his media outlets occasionally publish accurate (by Russian standards) information about the crooked oligarchs who surround President Vladimir Putin. And anti-Semitism cannot be excluded as a contributing factor. Barak's attempts to get Spain to release Gusinsky to Israel ought to be not just defended but applauded.

That said, Israel's involvement in the Rich case was highly improper. Israel has grown less concerned than it should be about the distinction between getting people out and getting people off. None of the "present and former high-ranking Israeli officials of both political parties" who wrote to Bill Clinton even hinted that Rich's prosecution had anything to do with his being Jewish. None claimed he could not get a fair trial in U.S. courts. So Israel's intervention constitutes a mildly insulting interference with American government, similar to, though of a lesser degree than, Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo's strident public opposition to California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994. Clinton responded to Zedillo's provocation by ignoring it, not by citing it as an excuse for his own opposition to Proposition 187. An Israeli argument from justice is a reason not to pardon Rich.

Money. When Rich's Israeli representative, the former Mossad agent Avner Azulay, solicited "letters of appreciation," he urged that Rich's $200 million in charitable work be stressed. It is true that Rich has backed youth tours sponsored by the Birthright Israel foundation and paid for the logistics of bringing threatened Jews from Ethiopia and Yemen. That may be good of Rich, but it's irrelevant to Clinton's pardon. For, as the Jerusalem Post points out, Clinton is at a brass-tacks level defending himself against the charge of accepting bribes. Knuckling under to Israeli foundation heads who've been bought is no different than being bought oneself. "One wonders why Rich's philanthropy among the Jewish community and in Israel is worthy of mention among reasons for a pardon," the Post writes, "while Clinton denies any connection between the pardon and Rich's ex-wife's large donations to the Democratic party and to the Clinton library. If the latter connection is improper, as it obviously is, why not the former?"

Furthermore, Israel is not alone in its use of Rich's philanthropic largesse. Rich has bought favors in every country that will have him, sponsoring hockey teams, concert halls, museums, and hospitals on the (correct) understanding that a warm welcome is his best insurance against American jail time. Clinton also received pro-Rich testimonials from Switzerland (from the mayors of Zurich, Lucerne, and Zug, among others), Spain (King Juan Carlos), Russia, and Romania (a former minister of defense). Why paint this as an exclusively Jewish thing? Unless, of course, you want to paint this as an exclusively Jewish thing. There is no obvious reason—independent of malign political calculation—for Clinton to claim Israeli testimonials influenced him more "profoundly" than testimonials from other countries. No reason, that is, unless it be the "peace process."

Peace. This claim was advanced forcefully by the New York Observer's Joe Conason, a Clinton courtier, even before the op-ed in which Clinton stressed "foreign-policy considerations." But what could those considerations be? Rich agreed to fund certain Palestinian compensation and investment funds as part of a future peace agreement. But it appears improbable that Barak, whose personal political fortune was more tightly linked to the peace process than any Israeli's, ever even mentioned this to Clinton. Barak was considerably more concerned with releasing the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard than with springing Rich. Clinton's team claims Barak mentioned Rich three times, NBC says twice, and Barak's advisers say once, and only in passing.

And it is worth asking how a pardon for Rich would have served the peace process in the first place. Whether or not Israel needed Rich to set up a Palestinian venture capital fund, such business can be transacted just as easily from Zug (or Jerusalem) as from New York. Even to raise the question may be to miss the forest for the trees, to ignore the way Rich's pardon threatened Israeli interests. As the Jerusalem Post puts it, "If Prime Minister Ehud Barak used precious political chits with a U.S. president to help free an alleged tax cheat, that was an abuse of Israeli authority."

So Israel had three possible reasons to want Rich sprung, all of which prove specious on examination. American Jews had absolutely none. Clinton received relatively few letters commending Rich from American Jews, who criticized his pardon in roughly the same percentages as the rest of the public. But the letters he got were extraordinary and appalling. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League not only wrote a fulsome testimonial to Rich, but also claimed he had written it for "humanitarian reasons," compounding his foolishness by stressing that he had acted in his official capacity. Rabbi Irving Greenberg of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum wrote to Clinton on the museum's stationery. Eric Yoffie, writing in New York's Jewish Week, singled out Foxman and Greenberg as having been "bought" by Rich.

"Clinton pardoned Rich for his own benefit," wrote the Israeli novelist Zev Chafets. "But the effort of Rich's strategists to turn their client into a modern-day Alfred Dreyfus—with the active connivance of some of the world's most prominent Jewish personalities and institutions—is a scandal in its own right." Foxman and Greenberg seemed alone in not realizing that the very moral unimpeachability of their respective causes made those causes a particularly attractive weapon for unscrupulous politicians to pick up and use to their own ends. As Robert Fink, a Rich lawyer, wrote in a November 19 strategy memo to other members of the Rich team, they needed to enlist people "of high moral authority." The civil rights movement has been abused that way for years. But no national politician had ever had the bravado to so deploy anti-anti-Semitism. Not until now, at least.

There is something almost majestic about Clinton's gumption here. He's trying to convince Jews that he'd gone through the political gauntlet of the Rich controversy only out of loyalty to them, while simultaneously convincing the rest of the country that he'd agreed to the pardons only because the Jews (or the Israelis) had him over a barrel.

The testimonials from Jewish organizations—both in the United States and in Israel—were not only harmful to those organizations' aims. They were totally unnecessary. Each of the pleaders requested that the White House give Rich a fair hearing—at a time when Rich's go-between, his ex-wife Denise, had reportedly visited the White House a hundred times and made herself useful to the finances of both Clinton and his party. Nor did the letters have any effect. By the time Foxman was writing on December 7, at the urging of the Rich camp, to inform the president that "Marc Rich has made amends," Clinton had been hearing that song and dance for weeks from Rich's lawyer, the former White House counsel Jack Quinn, and others who were considerably closer to Rich than Foxman was.

So why even bother with the letters? What was the point of them? The point of them was that they could be kept in reserve for exactly the use to which Clinton is now putting them. They were gathered to provide plausible deniability, much as Clinton's 1993 investigation of the White House Travel Office employees was carried out after the decision to fire them had been made. What made the letters particularly scandalous is that they were ultimately favors not to Rich but to Clinton, cover for a deal set up independently.

The best sign that these pardons were about Clinton, and only about Clinton, came when the Observer's Conason faulted Foxman for wavering from 100-percent loyalty once public opinion started shifting. (Irving Greenberg, too, issued a public apology for his pro-Rich lobbying.) "Now that the pardon has engendered almost universal criticism," Conason complained, "the ever-quotable ADL director—who prides himself on his willingness to take the heat for his beliefs—is uncharacteristically unavailable for comment." There is a more likely reason than shifting political winds for Foxman's silence. It's not that he looks like an influence peddler or a fair-weather friend. It's that he looks like a sucker.

  • See Also: The Clemency Page