WASHINGTON (JTA) — A combination of timing, diplomatic considerations and, above all, good old-fashioned noodging has culminated in the biggest push in years to free Jonathan Pollard.
Insiders associated with the push, which resulted last week in a congressional letter to President Obama asking for clemency for the American Jew convicted in 1987 of spying for Israel, say the main factor was one man: David Nyer, an Orthodox activist from Monsey, N.Y.
Nyer, working under the auspices of the National Council of Young Israel and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, repeatedly called dozens of congressional offices and pressed Jewish groups asking for a leader to take on the case of Pollard, the former U.S. Navy analyst who has spent 25 years in prison as part of a life sentence — the longest sentence for spying for an ally.
Congressional staffers described Nyer as "relentless," and he eventually struck gold: Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Banking Committee, agreed to sign on. That prompted a total of 39 signatures — all from Democrats — to the letter sent to Obama.
Getting Frank was a coup, one congressional insider said, not only because he has a leadership position, but because his pronounced liberalism in other arenas adds credibility to an effort that has been identified in recent years with the Israeli and pro-Israel right.
Frank took up the cause because he long has believed that Pollard’s life sentence was disproportionate to the crime, his spokesman said.
"It is something he feels strongly about," Harry Gural told JTA.
Launching the initiative at a Capitol Hill news conference Nov. 18, Frank listed two factors that made the matter timely: Pollard’s 25 years in prison as of Sundayand the parlous state of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"The justification of this is the humanitarian one and the notion that the American justice system should be a fair one," Frank said. "We believe that clemency after 25 years for the offenses of Jonathan Pollard would do that.
"My own hope is that if the president would do this, it would contribute to the political climate within the democracy of Israel and would enhance the peace process."
Frank alluded to Obama’s low popularity in Israel where, fairly or not, the president has been saddled with a reputation as cool to Israeli interests.
"There are clearly people in Israel who are concerned about the nature of the American-Israeli relationship," Frank said. "An affirmation of that relationship would go forward" to alleviating such concern.
Frank was joined at the news conference by Reps. Steve Rothman and and Bill Pascrell, both of New Jersey, and Anthony Weiner of New York. Pascrell met with Pollard in 1998 at Butner, the federal facility in North Carolina where he is imprisoned. Another initiator of the letter was Rep. Edolphus Towns of New York.
The letter’s emphasis is on what it says is the disproportionate length of Pollard’s sentence.
"We believe that there has been a great disparity from the standpoint of justice between the amount of time Mr. Pollard has served and the time that has been served — or not served at all — by many others who were found guilty of similar activity on behalf of nations that, like Israel, are not adversarial to us," the letter says. "It is indisputable in our view that the nearly twenty-five years that Mr. Pollard has served stands as a sufficient time from the standpoint of either punishment or deterrence."
It also emphasizes that Pollard is guilty.
"Such an exercise of the clemency power would not in any way imply doubt about his guilt, nor cast any aspersions on the process by which he was convicted," the letter says.
The absence of Republicans on the letter was striking.
Frank said he had reached out to Republicans and had delayed sending the letter until after the elections in order not to make it a political issue. Speaking on background, Jewish organizational officials — some of them allied with the most conservative groups — confirmed that was the case. Pro-Israel figures in some cases called the Republicans and said not signing would stain otherwise spotless pro-Israel records, but it didn’t help.
Two congressional Republicans known to have been on Nyer’s call list did not return calls from JTA seeking comment.
Nyer said he had secured the endorsement of conservative figures known for their closeness to the party, including Gary Bauer, the president of American Values, and John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel. Hagee had reached out to Republicans, Nyer said, but to no avail.
Among the Jewish groups backing the effort were the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the National Council of Young Israel, B’nai B’rith International, the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement, the Zionist Organization of America, Agudath Israel of America and the Rabbinical Council of America. Other mainstream groups stayed out — a signal of how sensitive the matter of a Jew spying for Israel remains.
One official at a pro-Israel organization said the multitude of groups backing the initiative shows how much the American Jewish community has moved on from the anxieties that beset its reactions to the revelations in 1985 that Israel had run a spy in Washington. Now, the official said, Pollard’s proponents are more vocal and more numerous.
Pollard’s backers in Israel are aware of the change and are encouraging activists like Nyer to mount an active offense.
Nyer, at Frank’s news conference, sounded nonplussed by his own achievement.
"I came across scores of ordinary Americans in the country, as well as prominent figures, who have joined the calls for Jonathan’s release," he said.
Beyond the congressional letter, the 25th anniversary of Pollard’s incarceration has spawned a number of Op-Eds calling for Pollard’s release, including one in The Washington Post over the weekend by his father, Morris Pollard.
Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religious Action Center, said Frank weighted the matter properly: The justice of the matter was key, but the timing of the peace process helped.
"It is always the right time to do the just thing in the face of the disproportionate sentence," Saperstein said. "If it has an ancillary benefit, if this is the way to move the process along, I’m all in favor of it — but it should be done on its own merits."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has favored such a release since he first proposed it during his first term, at the Wye River negotiations in 1998. President Clinton reportedly was ready to agree but was rebuffed by top intelligence officials. The CIA director at the time, George Tenet, said he would quit if Clinton agreed, and the president backed down.
Netanyahu is again prime minister, and negotiations again are fraught. Netanyahu is negotiating with the White House over concessions for freezing settlement building as a means to draw Palestinians back to direct talks.
Meanwhile, the reasons for the U.S. intelligence community’s strong stance against Pollard remain unknown.
"Anyone who knows isn’t talking, and anyone who is talking doesn’t know," Weiner said.
But two figures involved in the prosecution now have come forward to say Pollard has served enough time.
Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defense in 1987, said in a letter that his boss, the late Caspar Weinberger, had a "visceral dislike for Israel" and that played a role in his pressing the judge to ignore the plea bargain Pollard had worked out with prosecutors.
The other Reagan administration official recommending clemency is Abraham Sofaer, who helped investigate the breadth of the secrets Pollard stole for the Israelis.