Next month, convicted Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard will begin his 27th year in prison, and the Obama administration is displaying stunning insensitivity to what this means for the American Jewish community.
Pollard was arrested in 1985 for transferring classified documents to Israel during his service at US Naval Intelligence. In 1987, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime.
Pollard's sentence contradicted his plea bargain agreement. It was based, among other things, on an impact assessment report of his crimes that was authored by CIA officer Aldrich Ames. At the time of Pollard's arrest, Ames had been spying for the Soviet Union for two years.
Ames was arrested for espionage in 1994. He was responsible for the deaths of at least 10 agents working for US intelligence in the USSR.
Ames reportedly blamed Pollard for some of the agent deaths caused by his own espionage.
Pollard's life sentence was grossly disproportionate to the sentences routinely given to offenders who transfer classified information to US-allied governments. The median sentence for such crimes is two years in prison.
Until last year, there was a longstanding consensus in the US political and intelligence communities opposed to granting clemency to Pollard.
This consensus evaporated last year. In late 2010, US President Barack Obama received letters recommending commutation of Pollard's sentence to time served from former CIA director R. James Woolsey, and from retired senator Dennis DeConcini, who served as the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence at the time of Pollard's arrest and sentencing.
Obama received similar letters from former secretaries of state George Schultz and Henry Kissinger. He received requests for commutation from Sen. John McCain and former attorney-general Michael Mukasey.
Lawrence Korb, who served as assistant defense secretary under Caspar Weinberger, has spearheaded the effort to release Pollard. Korb has stated categorically that Pollard's harsh sentence was the result of Weinberger's antipathy for Jews.
Other US luminaries who have called for Obama to grant Pollard clemency include former congressman and presidential adviser Lee Hamilton, former senator and presidential adviser Alan Simpson, Harvard law professor and Obama mentor Charles Ogletree, US Appellate Court Judge Stephen Williams and former deputy attorney- general Phillip Heymann. Scores of congressmen, several senators and more than 500 clergymen have called for Pollard's release from prison.
Answering public entreaties from Korb and Pollard's wife, Esther, in early January, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli leader to issue a formal, public appeal for clemency for Pollard. Netanyahu read the text of his appeal to Obama from the Knesset podium and submitted it to the White House on January 4.
One of the main reasons for the urgency of the current appeal is Pollard's failing health. Aside from that, the basic arguments given by his advocates are the disproportionate length of Pollard's sentence; his deep, repeatedly stated remorse for his actions; his exemplary behavior in prison; and the fact that deterrence has been achieved.
OBAMA HAS failed to respond to Israel's formal request for clemency.
He has been silent in the face of lesser requests as well. When Pollard's father, Morris, was on his deathbed in June, Obama did not respond to formal requests to permit Pollard to visit him in the hospital. He similarly failed to respond to formal requests for Pollard to attend his father's funeral.
Obama's cold silence was broken last week by his agent Vice President Joseph Biden. According to the New York Jewish Week, in a meeting with 15 rabbis in South Florida on September 23, Biden provided an unsolicited monologue about Pollard's case. Repeatedly referring to Pollard as a "traitor," Biden said, "It would take the Third Coming before I would support letting Pollard out."
According to The New York Times, in making the statement, Biden, who is considered a friend of the US Jewish community and of Israel, served as Obama's fall guy. Biden's job was to deflect criticism of Obama's unstated decision not to release Pollard away from the president.
In the event, Obama's decision to send Biden out to reject calls for Pollard's release backfired.
Rather than killing the issue, Biden's unbridled assault on Pollard caused the US Jewish leadership to unify around Pollard and call for his release. As Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman told Channel 2 on Wednesday, Jewish leaders had never discussed Pollard's case publicly, but after Biden went public, they decided that they must follow suit. The leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements were all quoted by Jewish Week calling for Pollard's release.
Their calls came just before Biden's previously scheduled Rosh Hashana reception for Jewish leaders. So at the party on Wednesday, Biden was beset by leaders asking him to reconsider his position and recommend clemency for Pollard. In response, Biden agreed to meet with a small group of Jewish leaders in the near future to discuss Pollard's case.
Biden's assault on Pollard was strange for two main reasons. First, it was bad politics. Obama reportedly tasked Biden with rebuilding Jewish support for the administration. That support has frayed in the face of Obama's harsh treatment of Israel.
It is odd that in the context of Biden's outreach attempts, he chose to express a hostile position on Pollard that couldn't help but raise the hackles of the very community he was dispatched to woo. Rather than bringing the US Jewish community closer to the administration, Biden accomplished the astounding feat of unifying the fractured community in opposition to his position.
The second reason that Biden's anti-Pollard harangue made no sense is because it flew in the face of the claim that Obama has turned over a new leaf on Israel. Obama's supporters have argued that his speech at the General Assembly last month where he opposed the PLO's efforts to gain UN membership as a sovereign state was a watershed event for the president. In announcing his intention to veto a Palestinian statehood resolution in the UN Security Council, his supporters argue that Obama abandoned his previous hostility towards Israel and embraced it as an ally.
BIDEN'S ATTACK on Pollard is just the latest in a stunning line of rebukes of Israel by Obama's senior surrogates over the past 10 days that cast a pall on that supposed watershed event. First Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US opposes even symbolic recognition of Israel's capital city Jerusalem. Then she attacked Israel for approving new housing construction in Jerusalem.
Following on Clinton's heels, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta launched a public assault on Israel both ahead of and during his visit early this week.
Panetta seemingly made US support for Israel contingent on Israel's willingness to make concessions to its increasingly radicalized neighbors, saying, "As [the Israelis] take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to negotiate."
Panetta further accused Israel of isolating itself diplomatically due to its unwillingness to take what he considers sufficient risks. Just weeks after US intervention was needed to force Egypt's military junta to prevent the murder of six Israeli embassy guards besieged by a mob of Egyptian rioters who took over the embassy in Cairo, Panetta added, "Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength."
Besides blaming Israel for the absence of peace with the Palestinians and for post-Mubarak Egypt's rapid radicalization, Panetta publicly rejected Israel's right to take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, claiming all action against Iran must be multilateral. In stating this position, Panetta effectively gave a green light for Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
This is the case because the sanctions policy the Obama administration clings to has already demonstrably failed to deter Iran from advancing its nuclear weapons program.
Clinton's attack on Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, Panetta's assault on Israel's right to defend itself from the threat of genocide, and his unrestrained criticism of Israel's refusal to genuflect before increasingly belligerent neighbors all indicated that Obama's speech at the UN was not a new chapter in his administration's treatment of Israel. Rather, it was a one-off response to concern about the loss of American Jewish support for the president. That concern was spiked by the Republican victory in New York's Ninth Congressional District's special election last month.
Biden's assault on Pollard - and through him, the American Jewish community - was a similar sign that Obama has not let go of his antipathy for Israel.
Obama's behavior on Israel following the Democrats' congressional upset replicates his response to Republican Sen. Scott Brown's upset victory in the special Senate election in Massachusetts in January 2010. Brown was elected at the height of the debate on Obama's nationalized healthcare plan.
For the first couple of weeks after Brown's election, Obama and his surrogates signaled their willingness to compromise with Republicans in light of Massachusetts voters' rebuke of their partisan brinksmanship on the healthcare issue. But within two months of Brown's victory, Obama and his allies had doubled down and passed their highly controversial healthcare program with no Republican support and against the opposition of the majority of American voters.
In the case of both Israel and healthcare, Obama has opted to ignore the political consequences of his actions and press on with his ideological agenda.
The lesson Pollard and his supporters in the US and in Israel should take from Obama's behavior is that they must continue to press on in their campaign for Pollard's release as energetically and as relentlessly as possible. As the election date nears, if Obama's polling numbers continue to drop, it is possible - although unlikely - that he will decide that desperate times call for desperate measures and grant Pollard clemency.
Even if Obama fails to act in such a politically sensible fashion, a public and outspoken campaign for Pollard's release still makes sense. At a minimum, it can set the conditions for a new president to grant Pollard clemency immediately upon taking office, by causing Obama's Republican opponent to commit to such a course of action.
Speaking of Pollard's case with Jewish Week, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said, "In the midst of the Days of Awe, as we ponder the wrongdoings we have committed and pray for God's mercy, we pray as well that President Obama will act with mercy and grant Mr. Pollard long-overdue clemency."
American Jewish leaders deserve praise for their willingness to plead on Pollard's behalf. And they should be urged to continue to highlight Pollard's plight and call for his immediate release.
Pollard committed a crime. But his punishment far outweighs his misdeeds. Whether Obama releases him from his long suffering or not, it is heartwarming that due to Biden's unbridled assault on Pollard, the American Jewish leadership has found its voice and is calling for justice to be done.